I Am Travis

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I’m home. That’s a weird thing to think about, home. The place that you dream about when you’re sitting in Iraq with five minutes of quiet, or in the bay at Ft. Benning in between the smoke sessions. Almost twenty years ago when I was home, I was just “Travis.” “Travis” smoked dope and skipped class. He had a girlfriend and a little rental house and a car. “Travis” was a fucked up kid with a lot of friends and no future. “Travis” ran away from a girl by joining the Army. “Travis” swore he would never return.

“Ski,” what they called me when I was in the Army. I guess like most kids with a name that utilized the entire alphabet I was relegated to being called a portion of my surname. So, “Ski” it was. In the beginning it was simply a means to identify me from the other camouflage clad, high-and-tight-headed guys in my platoon, a way of singling me out by name for details or for the entertainment of my leadership. In my first four years of service I was “Ski” to my leaders and buddies, but I was still “Travis” in my mind.

“Ski” eventually became more of a persona than a name. It morphed into an identity much stronger than the three letters implied, borne of a need to distance “Travis” from the evils and immorality of “Ski’s” chosen profession. “Ski” became “Sergeant Ski” followed by “Staff Sergeant Ski,” “Sergeant First Class Ski” and – God help us all – “First Sergeant Ski” for a time. “Ski” in all of his Sergeant forms took on a whole new way of life and image. The Sergeants “Ski” were no longer that skinny, loud-mouthed kid from Anacortes, Washington, but a heavily muscled, loud-mouthed, maniacal bully who terrorized Soldiers and victimized lieutenants. “Ski” was a guy who head-butted Soldiers and subjected them to all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments in the name of training. He was a guy who back-mouthed officers and got away with it. “Ski” was known to run head-on into gunfire with little regard for his own safety. “Ski” was fucking crazy.

It was nineteen years ago I left my home in the Puget Sound. This year I celebrated my first Christmas and Thanksgiving here since leaving. I’ve spent time with people that I haven’t seen since I graduated from high school twenty years ago. The funny thing is that, here, in this small little town floating on an island in the Sound, I’m still “Travis.” My good friends Joe and Zach simply refuse to call me “Ski.”  I remain “Travis” to them, something which I find strangely comforting. It occurs to me that I’m in the middle of an identity crisis. Am I “Ski” or am I “Travis?” I barely remember what “Travis” was like twenty years ago, but I’ve been discharged long enough that “Ski’s” shenanigans sound fictional. Guys from the Army will send me emails asking, “Remember when you did that?” I am embarrassed by their memories of “Ski.” I have no idea who they are telling me about, though I believe what they say is true. Here at home, folks have memories of skipping class and smoking weed with me. When we talk now, they look at me with a strange curiosity as if I have two heads on my shoulders.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a story about a guy named George Webber who writes a book that makes references to his home town. The book is a wild success, but the depiction of his home angers the residents, and he begins to receive death threats. Reading into it, though, it’s more about Wolfe’s view of the unfair passage of time that prevents Webber from “going home again.” In a way, it is much the same situation for those “lifers” or “near lifers” like me who have returned to their home physically. None of us can really, ever, go home again. There’s simply too much time gone by for it ever to be the same. There are too many personas and layers to shuck off for it to be the way it was. Being home has taught me that “Ski” was a front, an act for other people and the greater good. “Ski” was not a person, but an entity that over time has become enigmatic even to me. “Ski” is an anachronism. He belongs to a different time and place.

“Travis” is a grown-up now, a true victim of the unfair passage of time. I am Travis. I work at a Catholic church. I make time for my friends who knew me when I was a fucked up kid and accept that I ran away and had life experiences that they can’t even imagine. I have breakfast with my father every other week.  He doesn’t look at me with a worried stare that says “I hope he turns out okay,” but with one of satisfied accomplishment. My family sees me as a man who has overcome great obstacles despite my internal identity crisis. I’ll never be “Ski,” and I’ll certainly never be eighteen year old “Travis.” I, quite honestly don’t ever want to be “Ski” or “Young Travis” again. That shitty kid can stay back in the late nineties and “Ski” can live on in the minds of those with whom he served. Instead, I’ll just keep plodding my way through the middle ground version of the two. I’ll never be able to go home, but I think I can bridge the gap between this place, who I was, who I pretended to be, and who I am now.

(Image: “Untitled” by Ron Whitehead)

On Our Next Stop In Modern War

By Jerad W. Alexander

“I said, ‘SHOOT HIM!’”

A machinegun rattles. A man dies.

He does not pass away like the elderly or terminally invalid—lying in a hospital bed in the soft receiving haze of curtained sunlight, each breath labored and forced until they’re not anymore. No spectacled doctor in a trim white lab coat waits with two fingers on a flat artery. No one announces the time.

The dead man is the fucked-up earthy brand of dead. He is OD’d dead, murder-victim dead, and taste-the-shotgun-barrel-on-your-tongue dead. He swam the machinegun waters and is now lemming dead. He is dead in every kind of way except peacefully dead. He chose the path of most resistance. He is firefight dead.

Now his body is a barrier we have to cross, the final shattered remains of an insurgent strongpoint boiling with smoke. We move slowly and with purpose. I am number three in the column. We are still alive but could be dead inside too, and the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand like cactus needles.

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What’s It Like to Kill Someone?

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I have been asked that question more times than I care to count. I have been asked it by complete strangers, friends, and by those closest to me. I have been witness to the anger that erupts when someone is asked it and I have on occasion been the outlet of that anger. Most real honest-to-God combat veterans will tell you that asking that question is inappropriate, to say the least. However, the farther away I get from my time in the military, the less the question bothers me. In fact, I often find myself asking “what was it like to kill someone?” When I think of being asked it occurs to me that I was offended by it not because it was inappropriate, but because I didn’t really have an answer to the question. It was much easier to explode into a tirade or ignore the question than to face it.

I have killed. Killing to me wasn’t so much an act as it was a journey. It began as we marched in formations at Fort Benning, when we responded to the Drill Sergeants counting our steps by saying “Train to kill, kill we will!” I went to the rifle range with my comrades and shot at pop-up, man-shaped silhouette targets. The Army’s mental conditioning designed to offset the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” training provided by society. Action, reaction; target up, shoot, target down; see the enemy, kill the enemy. Train to kill and kill we will. More of the same mental conditioning was provided to us at our units. In Staff Sergeant Moore’s Squad we were taught to “Strike Fast, Kick Ass!” See the enemy, kill him first. Strike fast, kick ass. Our job as Infantrymen, to close with and destroy the enemy by means of maneuver and superior firepower, was drilled into our heads and into our souls. Trained to kill, kill we will. The journey took a few years. All of the training and mental conditioning culminated at one moment, a squeeze of a mechanical trigger, just a fraction of friction. I remember feeling relieved that I had done it, had proved to myself and those around me that I was capable of doing what I was trained to do.

Ramadi 550

The act of killing I think is immensely private. My buddies saw me do it, but the feelings I had about it were mine alone. Those feelings are not always the same for everybody. I felt a sense of relief and a feeling of accomplishment. I had done it without hesitation and without fanfare. Others took it much harder outwardly. It was not uncommon for guys to lose their nerve after taking a life, or for them to become overwhelmed with the feeling that they had done something wrong. Then, some of the boys took great pleasure in killing, or at least they seemed to. As a defense against labeling the act of killing as killing we use gentle euphemisms to describe it like wasted, smoked or zapped. We also dehumanized our enemy to make wasting him easier on the conscience by calling him Haji, The Dirty Haj, and Raghead to name a few. And after the first time I killed another human being came as a relief to me, all of the ones I killed after him didn’t matter. Killing became a perfunctory and mechanical aspect of my employment.

What is it like to kill someone? As I look back on it now, years after what I hope is the last time I will ever have to kill another person my answer is this: The act of killing is a terrible and sad thing. For many it is a mentally and spiritually damaging act from which they’ll never recover. For others it doesn’t mean anything. For me, all I know is that it is better to be alive than to be dead, to walk the Earth, not to walk in someone else’s memories. I also know that to explain what killing is “like” to a person who has never had to kill, is an exercise in futility. They possess an annoying curiosity on the subject of killing, and maybe they have a right to know exactly what we did on their dime and in their name. Perhaps instead of coming unglued or shutting down, we as veterans should tell them exactly what they want to know even if they could never possibly understand it. Maybe we should find a way to articulate it to them in one word. If I had to sum killing up in one word, I’d say, “Easy.”