by Travis Switalksi, Sr.
I wish my family knew the pain I feel for having left them. I wish my wife knew how hard it was to leave her alone with two small children while I fought for a cause that hardly mattered. I wish my children knew that I wasn’t choosing a war over them. I wish I had a way to tell them that I’m sorry.
I’m working on my fourth year without the Army, which means I’m working on my fourth year of unadulterated time with my family. It has been a nice change from ranges, field exercises, schools, and deployments. There is nothing like waking up and seeing the people you love most, in person, every day. For them it is a dream come true. They have earned the right to have me home by living through a nightmare.
There was a time when my family came second to the Army and my soldiers. It was a matter of fact that everyone understood. Training took precedent over family functions, soldiers’ needs were met before theirs. When the commander or first sergeant called, Dad went running away from them. That meant deployments, too. I justified my absence with the abstract notion that I went because it was the patriotic thing to do, because I loved them. They always took me to the company, where we hugged and said our farewells. I never said “goodbye.” A potential “goodbye” in the physical, living sense was all too real a possibility. Instead I said, “I gotta go to work.” They still cried. I didn’t, although I wasn’t some heartless machine. I was stoic for their sake.
When I was at war, I called them when I could to assure them that things were “going good.” They weren’t, though. Without them, I became a version of myself that was unrecognizable. I took risks that even my leadership deemed insane. I did things that were morally questionable and sometimes wrong. I buried my memories of them deep to do all that, virtually numbing myself to their existence because they were my weakness. When I was there, I was not a husband and father. I was a leader of soldiers. So I replaced my care and love for them with care and love for my comrades. After all, those men would get me home one way or the other – be it on two feet or in a metal box. The men in my platoon needed me more than I believed my family did. My wife and kids were taken care of, or so I thought.
When I got home I put on my smiley face. It was time to dig them out of the deep hole in which I’d buried them. I dug and dug, but the more I shoveled out to find them, the more the dirt kept filling the hole. I could see them and they could see me, but I couldn’t grab hold of them. They couldn’t reach me, either. The hole, the abyss, was much too deep. Somewhere in all of the burying and all of the digging I had lost myself, too. I wasn’t the person that I thought I was, nor was I who they thought they knew. To them, I was a maniac who only occupied a space in their lives. To me, they were people who couldn’t understand that I’d transformed into that person because I loved them.
In the end, the Army divorced me. I wanted to tell myself that I was surprised, but I wasn’t. I knew it would come. The Army stopped loving me. I’m not sure that it ever had. (If it ever did, it certainly wasn’t as much as I loved it.) Our parting was a bittersweet one; I felt both liberated and lost, cheated and victorious. My wife and kids were ecstatic. They would finally have me “back.” No more training. No more war. And while they were happy, I was lost. I was set adrift with people whom I had forgotten about at some point, people I had buried. I felt they’d be better off without me anyway.
But I was wrong. We needed each other. They were the ones who’d never stopped loving me.
It took some time to realize this. The four of us were crammed into a cold, leaky, dilapidated house for three years. We had little money – sometimes we had little food – but we had each other. It taught me that I never had to dig for them because they were never really buried. They were there the whole time, waiting for me to dig myself out. They were waiting for me to see that I wasn’t damaged. I was no monster. I was more than my experiences. I was a husband and father. Eventually, we learned to live together again. We learned to accept and love one another. We found a way to assimilate to a world and a situation that was foreign to us. We did it together.
I look at the pain I feel for all of the damage and suffering I have caused them, and I hate it with every ounce of my being. Sometimes that hate makes me loathsome of myself, and I wonder how such a terrible human being could deserve something as fine as this life. That, I know, is the Grunt in me coming out to remind me that I need to count my blessings because I probably don’t deserve this. Other times I think about the pain and I wonder if it’s made me cherish what I have. I think it has.