November 26, 2012

Name: Colby Buzzell
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Milblog: My War

When I graduated from high school in 1995, I flirted with the idea of enlisting in the military but decided against it. Why would I want to sign up, receive all that training, and end up sitting on a base somewhere just killing time. Instead, I skipped the training and worked a series of nothing jobs.

student reading

                                                                                                                           Nick Daly / Getty Images

Then 9/11 happened, and I started hearing that the U.S. military was now hiring—and pretty much anyone they could. So I signed up, and after graduating from basic training studied abroad, spending 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, where our battalion commander sent us outside the wire several times a day “to locate, capture, and kill all anti-Iraqi forces.” After that, college seemed like it would be a breeze, especially with the post-9/11 GI Bill meaning Uncle Sam would pick up the check.

There’s a scene in Forrest Gump where the title character enlists in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. While in basic training, Gump, who’s essentially autistic, is heralded as a goddamn genius by his drill instructors because he follows simple instruction. He does what he’s supposed to in the military: exactly what he’s told.

It took me a bit to figure this one out—like a lot of things in life after war—but college is the same thing, really. My teachers back in high school, where I graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my class, may not believe it, but once I applied what I learned while serving to school, it became easy. It doesn’t take a genius to receive an honorable discharge or get a diploma. You just got to suck it up and drive on. You’re handed a syllabus, given textbooks, told what to read, how to read it and when to read it, and tested to see if you’ve comprehended or at least memorized the material that’s assigned. If you have any questions, there are professors there to answer them.

I made the Dean’s List my first semester in community college in California. I applied to a university and was accepted and moved to the East Coast. I got there in the dead of winter, mid-school year, with no warm footwear other than the desert-tan combat boots I wore in Iraq, which I had to dig out from a storage box. My blood type was still inscribed on the side. I laced those on and bloused them the same exact way I did in the Army, and wore them through the snow to my first day of class.

I almost shed a tear when I realized that these boots had taken me to a university education, something that I’d never even dreamed about—and I doubt my family or friends had either—before joining the Army. It was the first time I remember feeling that my country was thanking me, taking care of me for my service—which made me thankful for my country. Now I’m here, and I’ve got to remain focused and graduate.

And yet—88 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans currently enrolled in school “will drop out by next summer,” according to David Wood. Student Veterans of America dismissed that number as “unfounded and simply not true”—noting that “no organization, including the federal government, is currently able to accurately track the national graduation rates of student veterans.” Which is itself quite depressing.

Woods’s Huffington Post article also contends that “student veterans are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their civilian counterparts,” which does ring true. The American Psychological Association reports that “nearly half of college students who are U.S. military veterans reported thinking of suicide and 20 percent said they had planned to kill themselves.”

I often wonder if the college classroom experience for our current veterans is anything like what the members of the Greatest Generation sat through after they came home. Imagine the guys who fought in the Battle of the Bulge then finding themselves stuck in some college classroom surrounded by classmates who had never heard of war bonds, with a professor in a tweed coat going on:

“Japan, perhaps, but we should have never gone to Europe since they didn’t really attack us. And don’t even get me started on the atom bomb—do you know how many innocent civilians that killed? Oh, and Pearl Harbor? Inside job. Totally.”

It felt like that during the Bush years, but not so much anymore. Now I imagine the classrooms feel more like what Korean War veterans experienced when they came home: nearly forgotten, somewhere between out of place and simply invisible.

The students around me were in the fourth grade when President George W. Bush told the nation: “Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” I remember where I was when that was said, and the life and career choice I made shortly after.

Many of the students I share a campus with view veterans, both on and off campus, as mostly too dumb to be in college to begin with, or brainwashed to the point where they’re all unable to think for themselves, or ticking time bombs one bad grade away from bringing an assault rifle to class. All of which—it should go without saying, but doesn’t—is usually the furthest thing from the truth.

But there are parts of college life that chafe in ways that are hard for those who haven’t experienced the military to imagine, weird little slights and big bureaucratic frustrations.

It’s not necessarily dodged bullets, IEDs that didn’t explode, or dead bodies that haunt or make me stop feeling the need to go on. No, it’s waiting on the phone for well over an hour just to have the person on the line say that the disability claim filed more than a year ago is still in the system but hasn’t been processed yet, and receiving no answers at all about when it’ll go through. It’s a letter in the mail saying the housing allowance from the GI Bill is being “readjusted” down a couple hundred dollars. Signing up for classes and expecting that housing allowance to be in an account on the day promised but discovering it’s not, and it may be a few weeks before it’s corrected—it’s hard to say when exactly.

It’s walking into the VA hospital in pretty bad shape, waiting for hours in the lobby, and asking for something for insomnia and anxiety attacks, and being told to cut down on coffee.


It’s the stranger who says “Thank you for your service,” waits a beat, and adds, mantralike, “I support the troops but not the war.”

The yellow ribbons and no-blood-for-oil bumper stickers while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to fill up on five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline.

Fill-ups aside, money isn’t the issue for most veterans in school since even if we major in philosophy, the GI Bill means we won’t be grinding beans to pay down our debt.

But many of us joined the military after high school because we knew that either college wasn’t going to be a possibility, or even if it was it just wasn’t going to be our thing. That, and the realization that there has to be more to life than asking strangers: “Can I take your order?” Many of the men I served with were the kind of guys that would have been great at manufacturing work—but we know where those jobs have gone.

Not too long ago in Detroit I attended a job fair specifically for veterans. There were about 25,000 jobs nominally available, and far less than 5,000 vets there to fill them—every one of those men and women there hoping to hear: “You’re hired.” 

Instead, the refrain for every position that could possibly put someone into the middle class was “do you have an engineering degree?”

The remaining jobs offered—the ones that required some college, and those that didn’t—paid 10 or maybe 15 bucks an hour, with few or no benefits.

I walked away from that convention center feeling highly depressed, and I’ve found myself at least slightly depressed ever since.

“What am I going to do after I graduate with a history degree,” I started asking myself, and I began seriously thinking about dropping out. Thoughts that I’ve never had before—like what’s the point of it all?—started entering, unbidden, into my everyday thoughts.

I had similar thoughts midway through my tour in Iraq, where I wanted nothing more than to come home. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and I recall I just wanted it all to end. But then when I did come home I found myself at times strangely missing the war.

I wonder if college is the same thing. I try to remember: you just got to suck it up and drive on.


Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost In America: A Dead End Journey. He served as an infantryman in the United States Army during the Iraq War. Assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2003, Buzzell blogged from the front lines of Iraq as a replacement for his habitual journaling back in the states. In 2004 Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed frequently to the magazine. The Washington Post referred to his article “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” as “A Tour de Force Travelogue,” and his article “Down & Out In Fresno and San Francisco” was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. His work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on This American Life. He currently lives in West Virginia.

This post originally appeared as part of The Hero Project  on The Daily Beast.


Your finding your path. Take it where it leads. There is increasingly little need or want to be a wage-slave. Those chafes are the contradictions / hypocrises we all have to live with -- it's not an utopia. You have talent as a writer and are a thinking man. There is no better path than to follow history and its lessons and conundrums. You'll be in good company.

Real men should read only history. Napoleon

The is as thorough and thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it and sharing it.

It has bothered me that we spend an outrageous sum of money to keep troops comfortable in the field, and seem to do the exact opposite when they return home. The frustrations of life as a veteran are exasperating. We will pay a third-party contracter something like $30 a six pack to import Budweiser into Afghanistan (vs. buying the local beer for $3 and supporting the local economy). A huge percentage of the DoD budget goes to third party contractors, KBR was pulling in billions trying to recreate an American base experience, complete with American food and drink, halfway across the world. Do we really need KFC and Starbucks on large bases? I am not against providing comfort for our troops in the field, but I think we need to rationalize our field spend and put more effort into taking care of our veterans when they are back at home. You can get a latte but you can;t get body armor? Seriously?

Starving the VA system of talent and resources is as criminal as over paying KBR for logistic support. Tighten up the logistic spend and squeeze out the third party fraud and we will find plenty of money to improve the care and support for our veterans.

Thank you for writing - I've recently discovered this corner of Slate. You and others published here are talented storytellers. I hope you will keep at it; it's helpful for those of us who are essentially clueless about military life and war.

I read The Sandbox regularly and seldom comment; I read it to learn what I can from people who are generally amazing writers and have first-hand experience. But this blog disturbs me because you are doing exactly what you're objecting to other people doing: you're stereotyping colleges, your colleagues, your teachers.

I teach many vets and, like my other students, they come in all range of human. I wish you were in classes where you were asked to use your mind, generate and support your own ideas. They exist. Find them, please. I also know that the college where I teach does its best to provide veterans' support; the military club is run by vets. I also believe that many colleges don't support vets. We're not all the same.

I wish you were in my history classes! Thank you for writing this. I'm told we have a fair number of vets at my university, but I don't "see" them, probably because it's not something I remember to ask about. Your story makes me think I should. And your comments about keeping your head down and doing the work made me wonder about the balance between dogged application and, say, creative thought -- what do my courses require, and what should they? I personally believe in dogged application as part of college, but I think there should be a better/bigger reason behind it than "because I said so," or "because you need to pass this class."

And please don't give up on history. Even if you end up taking a different degree, what you wrote about the difficulties of cultural translation suggests just the sort of perspective that makes for good historical thinking -- and that really can be a job skill, albeit sometimes indirectly.

...you're basically right, because the basic problem is that we are a nation of people who make promises but rarely if ever keep them. But that is how you can distinguish yourself.

Ich freue mich sehr für diesen Blog genossen. Ich fühle mich stark daran und lieben lernen mehr über dieses Thema. Wenn möglich, wie Sie Know-how zu gewinnen, würde es Ihnen etwas ausmachen Aktualisierung Ihrer Blog mit mehr Informationen? Es ist sehr hilfreich für mich.

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