My Name is Martin F. Swirko. Most people call me Marty. A few people call me First Sergeant or “Top” and that’s because I am a retired First Sergeant from the United States Army. I have to say, it is a title that had to be earned, so, I always enjoy it when someone refers to me in that fashion. When I was growing up, my immediate family called me Mike or Mikey, but don’t bother to ask me why.
I am from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. I was born in St. Margaret’s Hospital. In fact, I spent the idyllic part of my childhood living in Dorchester, and at one point, my Dad (who was a WWII veteran of the Pacific) sold the three decker he owned and we lived in, and we made the big move, like the Jeffersons, to a city just south of Boston named Quincy. The only difference is the Jeffersons of TV fame moved up to the Eastside, while we moved across the Neponset River into Quincy Point, like many other families from Dorchester and South Boston.
I have to say that this move wasn’t really a move “up” in every sense of the word, but whatever reasons my Mom and Dad had, I know they thought they were doing the best thing for all of us. I did not like the move, missed my friends and school in Dorchester, but I got used to The Point, as it was called.
When I was 9 years old, on Christmas Day, my father took me to work with him on the 4-12 shift. I thought it was so cool. He was a Stationary Engineer / Fireman who ran the giant boilers inside the old South Bay incinerator, in Boston. That night, as I slept, I dreamed that my Dad died. At one point he came to my room, apparently hearing my whimpers and cries to check on me. I woke and realized it was only a nightmare, but I never did tell him what I had been crying about. After all, it was only a bad dream.
The next day, on my little sister’s 3rd Birthday, he went to work and never came home. He died suddenly, at work of a heart attack. The Christmas Season, even all these years later brings back those painful memories, even today. My Dad, Frank Swirko, left a heartbroken wife, and three children, two of which were so young, they didn’t remember him.
Little did I know at the time, but that terrible day began the slow but steady deterioration of my life, and that of my family. By the time I was in High School, High School itself became one of the few safe spaces for me, an escape, if only for the day, from my home life which long before then, had become intolerable.
By my senior year, I was, at times sleeping at Wollaston Beach, in the back of my best friend’s Rambler station wagon (unknown to him) or just walking the streets until daylight, then time to go to school. During those nights, I tried to avoid the beat cops, not because I was afraid of them, but I’d rather not have had to answer embarrassing questions about why I was wandering the streets. I was very embarrassed about my home situation, and I never shared that with any but the closets of friends. Occasionally, I was able to seek refuge sleeping on the couch of a friend, for a few days at a time. I would eventually return home, until the next crisis or abusive incident happened, then I’d have to flee.
I loved my mother, and still do, although she’s gone now, but although our relationship became rocky, I never really blamed her for the things that happened after the love of her life was suddenly taken from her.
I attended Quincy (Massachusetts) High School, and I graduated with the class of 73. To this day, I am a proud member of that class. For the first time in my life, while attending QHS, I found something that I was good at. I went out for Spring Track, and found I was a pretty good middle distance runner. I was a member of the track team that, for three years, went undefeated within the Greater Boston League. When I graduated, I attended Northeastern University, but I lasted for only 1 year. In the end, my problems at home made working and going to college full time impossible. Others did it, but in the end, it wasn’t in the cards for me.
My track coach and English teacher was named Tom Hall. He was the first real mentor I ever had, after my Dad died. He was a great coach, and sought out kids that were getting in trouble regularly, turned them into great track and field stars, and there is no doubt in my mind, he saved some of them from a life of crime and poverty. He is a great man, and I owe him so much. In my senior year, I broke down and disclosed to him, during a tearful conversation some of what was going on at home, and he literally snatched me from that dark place, the abyss that I found myself descending steadily and deeper into what my life had become. To this day, although I’ve tried to express my gratitude, I don’t think Coach Hall will ever fully realize what he has done for me. I am sure that I am only one of many.
Tom Hall helped me bridge the gap from the time I reached out for help, until the time I met my wife, who really did save me from myself, in so many ways. For that, I will be grateful until the day I die.
After dropping out of college, I kicked around. Since the time I was a young boy, I always wanted to be a soldier or a cop, and although I took a rather circuitous route to get there, I accomplished both goals. Many things throughout my lifetime didn’t come easy. However, Imagine how fortunate I was to have achieved my lifetime dreams.
I worked for a company of Diary / Convenience stores called Cumberland Farms for three years. This company is still around, in the Northeastern Part of the country. It was my first real job, and during that time I was robbed 9 times, 8 at gunpoint, and once at knife point. Each one of those events are separate stories in themselves.
I drove a taxi on and off in Boston, from 1974 until 1983. Again, that was a wild job, I made the best of it during that time, but it sure was a hard way to make a living and support a young family.
In 1981, I joined the US Army Reserve, and I graduated from the US Army Infantry School (USAIS) at Ft. Benning Georgia that summer. I graduated from the Army’s 2nd Infantry Training Brigade , located and hidden away at a place known as Harmony Church, way out in the Georgia woods and swamps. It was only 14 weeks, but the time I spent there, under the watchful and ever vigilant care of my seemingly aloof drill sergeants transformed my life in many, many ways. To this day, I am a proud graduate from Harmony Church, and I join the long brotherhood and generations of soldiers who came before and after I spent my time there. Soldiers who have fought this country’s battles and wars.
In the end, I served in the Army for 31 years, counting my Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard time. I had the opportunity to do some really unique jobs in the Army, which included a combat tour, as an infantryman and leader in Iraq.
In the mean time, I worked for another grocery store chain for ten years, until I finally got a job as a cop, in Manchester NH. I worked almost 28 years as a cop, finally taking my badge off for the final time on Nov. 30, 2018.
I was in Iraq during the last half of 2005 and the first part of 2006. After a short period of time, I came to feel that there was a real possibility of my being killed. My kid brother was with me, and he came out of the Inactive Ready Reserve to go on this tour with me. He was also a Manchester Cop at the time. I always dragged him around with me, trying to replace my father, but I never imagined I’d end up dragging him along with me to war. When I told him where I was going, he told me in a matter of fact tone, that I wasn’t going anywhere without him. If my mother was alive, we never would have pulled this stunt at the same time, but, she sadly, she had died a few years before.
I always enjoyed writing, and I decided that during my tour, I was going to start writing about my experiences in Iraq. It didn’t take me long to realize how hazardous our mission was, so I had decided that I wanted to document some of what I had seen and what I had done there for my family, in case I got killed there. It was important to me, at the time, that my family and close friends learn of my experiences. After a short time, my brother (another Quincy / Dorchester kid) and I agreed that if one of us got killed, the other would go home with him, and not return to Iraq, because we felt our family wouldn’t be able to deal with and recover if both of us were killed.
After a time, I found writing to be very therapeutic for me, and I wrote emails home regularly, that were shared with people around the country. For several years after I came home, I wrote short stories about some of my life’s experiences. I’ve always received good feedback from those with whom I have shared these stories, and have been encouraged to write a book. Who knows? Maybe sometime I will.
While I was in Iraq, I participated in some 200 combat patrols and operations. My radio call sign was Thunder 3-7, and every day we left our Forwarding Operating Base on a mission, never being sure I would return.When leaving, I or someone from my team, had to call our higher HQ by radio, and inform them who we were, how many soldiers were with me, and how many vehicles made up this patrol or mission.
The higher HQ would then advises us on the status of the roadways we were about to embark upon. There those routes would be classified as follows:
RED-meaning the road was closed, usually to enemy action;
BLACK-Meaning the road was closed for any number of reasons;
AMBER-meaning open, but not secure, bad guys roamed it almost at will.
The last thing we would hear, as we left the base heading into the unknown was always
ALL ROUTES ARE AMBER
To me, those four words characterized my time in Iraq. So, I thought if I ever did write a book telling about the brave soldiers I served with in Iraq, those who “left the wire” and faced death every day, too many of whom did in fact make the ultimate sacrifice, I would call it ALL ROUTES ARE AMBER.
So, naturally, when I thought long and hard about a title for this blog, this came to mind. Except that because I envision myself talking about more than just my military experiences. I won’t normally talk politics, but from time to time I reserve the right to comment on topics that I have a passion for. So initially, I discarded the idea of using that title.
However, the more I thought and talked about it, the more I realized that ALL ROUTES ARE AMBER could apply to my entire life, all of our lives. As we travel through our lifetimes, choosing various paths to take, sometimes having to choose the “hard right turn instead of the easy left” all routes really are amber in life, as least symbolically.
And so it is that I’ve decided to title this blog ALL ROUTES ARE AMBER. I truly hope anyone that takes the time to read what I write and type get a measure of enjoyment out of it.