At 21 years old, Clayton Swansen was drifting.
The Blaine native had dropped out of high school, moved to California and found himself failing out of community college. “I was a terrible student,” he said.
It was time for a change.
A combination of the events of September 11, 2001 and a desire to leave his listless lifestyle behind spurred him to make a decision. He considered his options and enlisted in the Navy in January 2002 for an extended tour so that he could go to explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) school. “I needed a fresh perspective and fresh direction,” Swansen said. “A little
discipline, maybe. The EOD was a just-in-case job.”
But his backup plan became a passion. “It was exciting. Our job was to blow things up – it was a kid’s dream job, out there playing with explosives every day,” he said.
He went through training, knowing that his team’s focus was to eventually deploy to the Middle East. But, even knowing that, Iraq wasn’t in his plans. “When Iraq kicked off, it really changed the game,” he said. “We hadn’t seen a lot of roadside bombs in Afghanistan, but when we entered Iraq, we got pulled into it in a big way.”
The switch up was not well received by Swansen. “I had wanted to go to Afghanistan. I felt it was the right thing to do at the time. But, Iraq was obscure and it felt like we were there protecting corporate interests. It was hard, and I was angry all the time,” Swansen said.
The dead, flat Al Anbar province was not a welcome sight. Swansen said the desert bled into the same colored sky, making for a mind-numbing experience. “It was rural, with a lot of farmers and not a lot going on. And, the heat was miserable,” he said.
He couldn’t get used to the constant anxiety he felt every time his team was called out on a mission. “When you’re driving down the road, you’re nervous. You’re waiting for it to happen. You’re always in an antsy state,” he said. “I can see how some people live for it, but I didn’t like it.” The nervousness followed him when he went into cities, bringing with it a crippling fear. “Cities felt dangerous. I could never be comfortable, and I always felt like I was surrounded,” he said, never knowing who the bad guys were.
The work kept him focused, though, and kept him sane. “Our job was to get rid of bombs, not to get bad guys. It made it a little easier for me to accept,” he said. “I was just there doing my job and hopefully keeping people from dying, which sometimes we were good at and sometimes we weren’t,” Swansen said.
Compartmentalizing the situation that way made all the difference for him. “Eventually you come to the point where it is what it is, and politics go out the door and you’re just making sure the people to your left and right come home,” he said. “And, there were so many IEDs [roadside bombs], that was our only job.”
Swansen and his team spent their days responding to bomb reports – disabling them where they could and doing scene cleanup when they couldn’t. Their work included post-bomb analysis and intelligence gathering on the insurgents to discover how their tactics were changing. But they had to be careful.
“Our biggest concern was secondary bombs. The insurgents were gathering intelligence, too, and they knew how we handled situations,” he said. Because of that counter observation, insurgents would plant bombs in places that they thought the EOD was likely to go, making the few hundred yards around the bomb site just as deadly as the original bomb site.
“It was an interesting job. It kept you on your toes. Every time I’d step out of the truck, I’d think, if this is it, let it be quick,” Swansen said. But, despite several close calls, including one where a bomb detonated five feet in front of his Humvee, Swansen was pulled back to the U.S. after seven months active duty, alive and well.
He was glad to be home, but adjusting to life out of the war zone was harder than he had expected. “It felt really weird to come home. It’s so sudden,” he said. “You go from a war zone to stateside within a matter of days and you’re dropped back into life as it was before you left. There’s a real feeling of ‘what’s the point?’,” Swansen continued.
“You’ve been living in this heightened state for so long and watching people die horrible deaths,” Swansen said. “To come back to mundane activities feels meaningless.”
It took some time, but eventually Swansen settled in and used his G.I. Bill to go to college. He majored in English, a discipline that helped him find an outlet for his experiences – an important part of dealing with the lingering effects of his war-induced post traumatic stress disorder. “You either sink into yourself or get help. I know guys who can’t let it go, and I didn’t want to be like that,” he said. Through the support of family and friends, he’s learned to deal with the difficulties of reintegrating into life back home.
Swansen looks at his service as a learning experience in itself, and even though he views much of the experiences as negative, he feels that it was still enormously beneficial.
“I’m in a much better place than I was before I joined. I got to do and see a lot,” Swansen said. “I would go again if I had to make the decision over.”