FORT PICKETT, Va. –
Staff Sgt. Robert J. Gwilt’s connection to his Navajo heritage comes largely from the relationship he built with his grandfather while growing up in Gallup, New Mexico.
“I grew up ranching cattle and riding horses,” he said. “Mostly with my grandfather until my dad moved us away from Gallup. We would drive all over the reservation and we raised livestock to sell to the local markets.”
When he wasn’t in school, Gwilt was with his grandfather, who often told him jokes in Navajo, a language Gwilt couldn’t fully comprehend.
“My grandfather used to speak to me in Navajo a lot,” he said. “He loved telling jokes and most of the time, they made no sense because I couldn’t translate the words, but I’d just laugh to make him happy.”
His grandfather called him shi yazhi, or little one, and told him, “Life’s too short, so always be happy and don’t race to the finish line,” as he gestured to a cemetery, joking that too many people are dying to get there.
“He thought it was the funniest thing,” said Gwilt.
By the time he was 7, Gwilt and his family had moved off the reservation.
“I missed going to the powwows and getting to see my aunts, uncles and cousins. I would dance, help with the drum circles and loved singing. A lot of my family danced and drummed,” he said, explaining that the move severed some of his connection to his heritage. “Once we moved, it stopped, but anytime I saw my family, it was always great.”
Life wasn’t always easy for Gwilt and by 13, he was living on his own. He moved around a lot, and eventually dropped out of school.
“I was living in an apartment and working a few side jobs,” he said. “I was trying to make money to live while still trying to finish high school, but I ended up dropping out because I needed to work.”
Despite his best efforts, there were, Gwilt says, a few times when he found himself without housing. But, he kept trying to improve his situation, completed his GED, scoring in the top tenth percentile nationwide. With the advent of Facebook, Gwilt was able to reconnect with family and when his uncle heard about his situation, he sent him a bus ticket to Tucson, Arizona.
“My uncle really helped me get my life turned around,” Gwilt said, explaining that, thanks to his uncle, he was able to get a job at an x-ray company servicing the machines and delivering supplies.
At 19, Gwilt moved back to New Mexico with a friend. He was thinking about military service and had thought the Army would be a good fit. He ended up talking to a recruiter from the National Guard and, after learning about the benefits, he enlisted as an 11B Infantryman in the New Mexico Army National Guard.
“I wanted a change of pace,” he said. “My father had served, and I had always wanted to join the Army, be a ranger and be a sniper. Those were the three things I always wanted to do.”
Today, Gwilt has almost 16 years of military service behind him. Over the course of his career, he’s earned four military occupational specialties and currently works for full-time with the Virginia National Guard’s 34th Civil Support Team.
“What I love most about my job is the science of everything,” he said. “I get to learn new things and be considered a subject matter expert in the realm of survey and decontamination operations.”
Gwilt said he would not be where he is today had he not experienced all those obstacles growing up. Resilience, he says, is one of his strengths and he tries to make time to encourage others facing challenges.
“It’s always nice to stop and remember where I came from,” he said. “It’s a long walk, so remember to make the steps count, strive for the steps that feel good and repeat that; then the rest will seem easier.”