by Travis Switalski, Sr.
I have been told by my civilian friends on many occasions that I should relax because the war is over for me. They keep telling me to let go of the past and to get over it. They ask me what my problem is when I am distant, assuming I am safe and sound because I am thousands of miles away from my life in combat. A hot and angry feeling overwhelms me when someone suggests that I forget about my experiences and move on with my life. I have resisted the temptation to explain myself to them, to attempt to show them the difficulty – the impossibility – of forgetting. I know that any answer will fall short of comprehension. They just want the “old me” back. They just want me to forget, to go on as if the war never happened.
It doesn’t work that way though.
There is a lot that is not easily forgotten, so much so that a person is never the same after they have been to war. I have seen my friends, my soldiers, and my enemies take their last breaths. I have witnessed explosions so bright that the images were burned into my retinas. I have seen grown men cry for their mothers as their blood spewed onto the ground. I have seen heroism and cowardice, bravery and fear. I watched Improvised Explosive Devices shred metal and meat, burning my friends as they attempted to escape. I can close my eyes and see fierce fire fights with swarms of hot angry bullets flying through the sky. My ears still ring with the sounds of mortar impacts and air strikes. The metallic smell of blood will forever line my nose. Combat provided me with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. How could I forget that?
There was very little opportunity to mourn our dead friends and soldiers in combat. There were short memorial services for them. A helmet was placed on the butt-stock of a rifle adorned with the fallen soldiers’ dog tags, sad music played, kind words spoken. That is all. The fight continued. We were forced to steel our hearts against our own mortality and the mortality of our friends, summoning the willpower to resist the “flight” mechanism in our nature. The magnitude of losing friends and soldiers hit me much later than when I actually lost them. I grieve for them now because I could not then. How could I let them go?
I went outside the wire every day. Out there, everywhere we stepped – every corner, every building, every street, every door – was potentially lethal. I lived in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for myself and my soldiers. Watchfulness meant survival. You can’t just turn that off. There is no switch. There is no magic word. There is no pill that can dull it. And I have evolved as a result of it. I can sense danger that those around me cannot and I embrace its power. Why would I want to lose that?
I have fought the enemy. I have closed with and destroyed him on his terms in his backyard. I have run under fire to save a comrade. I have held a man while the light faded from his eyes as he died. I have saved lives as well as taken them. I have a keen sense of life’s fragility. I also know about hardship, and appreciate things like showers, sleep, and food, having gone without. I learned a great deal about myself and my limits while I was in combat. I learned these grim, hard truths in a place where life was extinguished regularly. Why would I want to unlearn those lessons?
It is over now, so they say. It is a nice sentiment that soldiers can just come home and leave the war and its demons behind. To think that experiences and memories can be forgotten, and that to be home is to be completely free of the nightmare of war, is unrealistic. I have tried in the past to forget about it all, to pretend that it did not happen and that it did not matter, that it was over. The truth is that I cannot forget, nor will I try. I will not forget what my friends and soldiers have sacrificed. To do so would be a disgrace to them. I choose not to forget so that these things I’ve done won’t be in vain. That time in my life has shaped who I am now. I have embraced it, and I hope those around me can, too. I have accepted that nothing about the war for me or for my comrades will ever be truly over. Nothing.