REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. – Lt. Col. Perilla Bhandari Swartz never envisioned leaving her home of India, but she bid farewell to the life she knew and moved to the United States in 1995.
“I was young and fell in love with an American. My parents were dead set against it, but my mind was made up,” said Swartz, whose Army career has brought her to Redstone Arsenal to work in Army Materiel Command’s Commanding General’s Initiatives Group.
Growing up in India wasn’t always easy for Swartz and her family. Her parents came from poverty-stricken families of farmers and tea plantation workers. But both believed in the power of education and were determined to break the cycle of poverty. Her parents became teachers and eventually notable political leaders. Her father served as the elected head of state of Sikkim in northeast India for a few terms, and her mother as a member of parliament — becoming trailblazers for their community.
Early on, her parents taught her the value of education. While still in India, Swartz earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from St. Stephens College, a constituent college of the University of Delhi, India. She also holds a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management from HOSTA hotel school, Leysin, Switzerland; and an M.B.A from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri.
But, insistent on leaving India, she packed her bags and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, with echoes of her mother saying, “if you want to act like an adult and make these adult decisions, you will have to face adult consequences. Once you make this decision, there will be no turning back.”
Swartz then created a life for herself in Iowa, despite the harsh reality of life in a foreign country. She was welcomed by the Sioux City community and can still remember the look and feel of the $500 in American Express checks she had to her name.
“Besides my husband, I did not know a single soul in America. Living in Iowa I was blessed by a community that embraced me and showed me why it’s called the heartland,” she said. “I worked hard and was afforded opportunities to make a life for myself and achieve the American Dream. I was in awe of this country and so grateful for all my blessings.”
Even as she faced the challenges of being a first-generation immigrant, greater trials emerged as Swartz’ marriage started collapsing. Depression, loneliness and even the threat of homelessness crept in, but Swartz said she was determined to overcome them.
“This was the adult consequence my mother had warned me about and I was going to face it on my own. I was not going back to India with my tail between my legs,” she said. “When I was going through it, I knew this was not my story. An immigrant who ends up on the streets — a mere statistic. From working as a telemarketer to food service to sales, I was going to do whatever to keep my head above water. I worked hellacious hours, but I managed not to be homeless.”
In 2000, Swartz was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. And, in 2001, while working at a computer firm as a project management specialist, she found her call to action and was inspired to join the all-volunteer service.
“Just like everyone else, I still remember where I was when the towers fell. I felt compelled to do something to give back to a country that had given me so much,” she recalled.
After 9/11, Swartz enlisted in the Army as an automated supply specialist, a profession she felt would translate well from her job as a project manager. After serving for a few years, she commissioned as a second lieutenant in in the Quartermaster Corps.
“I called the Army recruiter and enlisted at 27 years old. I turned 28 on Day 0 of basic training,” she said. “I look back on my career now and given the choice, I would not have picked any other branch. I’m a sustainer … I solve problems you didn’t know you had.”
Finding herself moving up in the ranks, Swartz was promoted below the zone — a program that accelerates promotion for officers who have demonstrated outstanding performance — to major and is now a lieutenant colonel. Her sense of duty and selfless service outweighed her need to gain recognition — putting the welfare of the nation, the Army and subordinates before individual wellbeing.
“I just do what the Army wants me to do … lead by example. From looking my best, I try and be the best I can be in everything I do. It’s never about competing with anyone else. When people talk about making a difference, I don’t even think of the things I have accomplished,” she said. “I think of the people, all the lives I have touched as they have touched mine. The things I have learned from them and the relationships I have built with them. I value that above all things.”
In her drive to give back to her community, Swartz serves as a registered foster parent, providing emergency foster care for children in harm’s way. She also runs a non-profit in India that affords scholarships to girls from marginalized communities. So far, the organization has built a library, with another in the works.
“The scholarships are in my mother’s name because she was a child of tea plantation workers and never stood a chance. She was a brilliant student and the universe kept putting people in her path who helped her with her education,” Swartz said. “Education helped my parents free our family from an impoverished existence and now I want to pay it forward. I want girls from my community, girls who look like me, to have the same opportunities.”
Swartz believes she gets to pursue both her passions: of serving her nation and her own community. Now, 20 years later, she says she’s just getting started in her career and there is no limit on where she can go. Swartz said there is much more to learning to do and she isn’t ready to hang up her hat yet.
“I take great pride in saying I have worked at every echelon of sustainment from tactical to strategic,” she said. “An assignment at AMC is a logistician’s dream. And to work in the commanding general’s initiatives group, be privy to the commanding general and how he thinks, I’m in awe of not just the CG but all the brilliant people here. I learn something new every day and I absolutely love coming to work.”
Swartz has enjoyed the challenges that have come her way while serving, from running convoy logistics patrols in Iraq, conducting mortuary affairs services and becoming a company commander for a wounded warrior transition unit to serving as the Army logistics team lead for the DOD Warrior Games, jumping out of airplanes, traveling all over the country and serving as a guest speaker at Veterans Day events in the community.
She says the Army has afforded her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with career advancement, mentorship, knowledge and numerous benefits. It’s a profession for those who want to challenge themselves, forge new paths in their career and be part of high performing teams.
“It’s the best thing that happened to me,” she said. “I never fit in anywhere, growing up I was always the square peg in the round hole. There was something about the Army, like a light switch was flipped on and everything fell into place. The Army values were similar to the values inculcated in me by my parents. I felt a sense of belonging from the very start. This has been the most rewarding experience of my life.”
Her story is that of overcoming fears associated with immigrating to a new country, to becoming a Soldier grounded in education and the Army values.
“I enlisted when the Army’s motto was ‘Be All You Can Be.’” We have changed our motto since then but that one I relate to the most,” she said. “It’s truly an organization where I can be whatever I want to be. The only limit is the limitations I set for myself. Every assignment is an opportunity to learn something new, meet new people and be the best version of myself. Like in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, I’m judged by the content of my character and not by the color of my skin. I’m judged on my performance and what I bring to the table. I love being a Soldier.”