Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

What It’s Like to Be an Iraq War Veteran on Veterans Day

Colby Buzzell

Colby Buzzell

From fielding questions from his six-year-old son about Veterans Day to speaking to an auditorium full of college kids, Iraq war veteran Colby Buzzell has made the rounds.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

These days I've relocated to a new city. There's a bar right around the corner that I sometimes go to, to pick up where I left off. Corner seat, by myself, beer and a whiskey, staring at the wall in front of me. Not too long ago, a couple patrons there approached me while I was doing my thing, and they asked if I was a veteran. I told them I was, deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. They all shook their heads and told me they not only knew it, but that I totally reminded them of a friend of theirs who was also an Iraq war veteran, and was also a regular at the bar. They told me I not only acted like him at the bar, but I looked eerily like him as well. When I asked what happened to this guy and why he no longer comes to this bar, they told me he killed himself or something to that effect.

"Oh," I said.

"He was a good guy," they said, and then we went back to what we had been doing before, them with their drinks and conversations, and me with my thoughts.

The author (second from the left) with his platoon in Iraq in 2003. All photos courtesy of Colby Buzzell

When not at the bar or scrambling around town trying to land a job, I do the dad thing. My son's in kindergarten. He's six, and when I picked him up from school the other day, he appeared so excited. He told me all about how they not only didn't have to go to school the following day, thanks to it being Veterans Day, but also how they had an assembly where brought in two real-life veterans to speak with them.

"Really?" I asked, while wondering why in the hell didn't they invite me to speak? I'm a veteran, too, I thought.

"Yes," he said. "They were in the Army."

My son is well-aware I was in the Army, too. When I asked him what he thought a veteran was he told me, "It's someone who fights and kills people." I have no idea who the fuck told him that—I didn't.

"No, that's not true," I say. "Not all veterans are combat veterans. Some stay on base and don't do shit."

While walking home hand in hand, I asked my son what they taught him at school about Veterans Day. "What is Veterans Day?" I asked.

Besides being a day off from school he told me, "It's when you thank Army people for serving you dinner."

I nodded.

I was so sick and tired of PTSD, and everything about it. I was sick of hearing about it, sick of talking about it, sick of people asking me about it, and I'm sick of being viewed as someone with it. It's totally played.

At the gym prior to picking up my son from school, a person thanked me for my service. This took place while I was doing curls. I had my headphones on, primarily so that nobody will talk to me or ask me for a spot, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. He asked if I had served. I think he did this primarily because I was wearing my old "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America" T-shirt. I scored that IAVA T-shirt of mine back when I was attending City College thanks to my post 9/11 GI Bill. We had a room on campus devoted to student veterans to hang out in. One day they had a box of these shirts available for people to take, so I took one and ever since been using as a gym shirt.

I nodded to this guy and said, "Yeah, I served." He then put his hand out to shake, thanking me for my service. I shook his hand back and said thank you, and then this slightly awkward moment took place where we both just stood there in silence, neither of us knowing what more to say to one another other than what was just said. After that, he turned around and walked away, and I did, too.

Today is Veterans Day, and with people thanking me at the gym for my service and not knowing what more to say than that, and my son telling me all about how excited he is that he doesn't have school on Veterans Day, I was reminded of this time back in college when word spread around campus that I was an Iraq veteran, and I was invited by a professor to come and speak to her class about the Iraq war. I agreed to do this primarily as a way of creating "awareness" about the war and veterans' issues, and also helping bridge this so-called military-civilian divide I keep hearing about, as if though it's some new thing that never existed before.

On the day of my visit, the auditorium was packed. Nearly every seat was occupied, and a murmur of idle chatter filled the auditorium as I stood off to the side. The room went silent as the professor walked up behind the podium, set her notebooks down, and did her thing. After thanking everyone for showing up, she gave me a gracious introduction. She introduced me as not only an Iraq war veteran, but a fellow student as well. She thanked me for agreeing to come and speak with their class about my experiences in the war and welcomed me to the stage.

With her head cocked slightly to the side, she sweetly asked, 'How old are you?'

After some confusion by the audience on whether it would be appropriate to applaud, I got up from my seat and situated myself behind the podium. I took another deep breath and exhaled. Having recited it so many times before, I gave a little speech from memory about how and why I enlisted shortly after 9/11. I talked about how I was actually in New York City, blocks away from the towers falling, how it affected me, and the decisions I chose to make with my life afterwards. My time at Fort Benning, from there assigned to an Infantry unit at Fort Lewis and how we flew into Kuwait, from there driving up into Iraq in 2003 to 2004, where we conducted countless combat operations for nearly a year. As I was talking about the specific types of missions we conducted— raids, ambushes, counter mortar attacks, movement-to-contact patrols—a part of me felt as though I was on exhibit, like a zoo animal, especially with everyone just seated there staring at me blankly, but I brushed it off, telling myself it was just paranoia.

When I was done speaking, there was this silence. A silence that seemed to last forever until some modest clapping began. I looked over at the professor, who looked pleased. She went ahead and asked the class if they had any questions. Apparently no one did. After egging her class a bit, a student slouched down in his seat way off in the back corner shot his hand up. His question was for the professor.

"I was just wondering, how are you recording the extra credit? Is there going to be a sign-out sheet for that?"

The professor answered yes, that her teaching aides would have sign-out sheets at both exits for students to list their names once the session was over. The same student then asked a question about when the make-up exams will be, since he wasn't quite sure how that was going to work. Once that was resolved, the next question came from a young girl seated in the middle.

With her head cocked slightly to the side, she sweetly asked, "How old are you?"

I froze. While standing there in front of several hundred of my peers, I felt as if I had dumbly walked into an ambush. How old are you? This question that was aimed at me was totally unexpected and out of the blue, just like whenever one of our vehicles in Iraq got either RPG'ed or IED'ed.

I was at a loss for words, and the question replayed in my head over and over again. What did this have to do with my experience in Iraq? Now, filled with embarrassment and the feeling that I had made a huge mistake in agreeing to this, I wondered if these students didn't view me the way I did—as a veteran who'd served his country—but perhaps instead as that creepy old guy who sat in all their classes and wasted everyone's time by relentlessly asking the professor irrelevant questions that weren't appropriate for group settings, or going on and on about some story in which nobody gave a shit about, which annoyed the entire class. How old are you?

I repeated her question, this time out loud. "How old am I?"

"Yeah." She innocently wondered this, and I could tell by her seriousness that she was sincere, but very perplexed by me. "How old are you?" The looks on the young faces seated around her seemed to wonder the same.

My first inclination was to respond by saying something along the lines of that I was old enough to enlist in the military back when I was your age, sweetheart, but that seemed too confrontational. So instead I offered her a one-word answer: "Old."

Only a couple, maybe one or two students, chuckled at this answer of mine. The rest remained totally silent as if in total agreement with what I said.

Something that has always irked me is that these people want to hear war stories from you. It's porn to them. The more fucked up the war story is, the more of a hard-on they get.

Moving on, I looked around the room for another question, praying to God for it to be military- or war-related. While scanning the audience, I noticed a kid seated with his headphones still on bobbing his head. A question came from a student seated in the far back, and who I could tell by the tone of his voice loved weed. "Dude, what was like, the most messed-up stuff you guys did over there?"

"Excuse me?"

"You know, like, what's the most f'ed up thing you guys did to someone or saw while over there?"

"I'm sorry," I answered, knowing what he was getting at. Something that has always irked me is that these people want to hear war stories from you. It's porn to them. The more fucked up the war story is, the more of a hard-on they get. Then they nut and go about their everyday life while you carry the scars of what you saw and did. I don't give handjobs.

The author in Iraq in 2003

"I don't quite understand your question," I lied. Then I cut him off by quickly calling on a raised hand in one of the front rows. Nervous, this student began to physically struggle with his words. I couldn't for the life of me decipher the question.

Then the professor stepped in and apologized, mentioning that this particular student suffered from a form of dyslexia. Another student somewhere in the auditorium chimed in: "He wants to know if you have PTSD."

Again, I repeated the question out loud, "Do I have PTSD?"

"Yes!" the flustered student said.

I thought about this one as well, this time for a long second. Do I have PTSD?

I mentioned how yes, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs I did, but I didn't spend too much more time talking about it than that. I was so sick and tired of PTSD, and everything about it. I was sick of hearing about it, sick of talking about it, sick of people asking me about it, and I'm sick of being viewed as someone with it. It's totally played.

Resisting the urge not to laugh—or cry—I did my best to explain.

Focusing my attention back to the auditorium, I glanced the room as an awkward silence set in. They had become very obviously bored.

What in the hell was going on? Was this because I didn't have any cool war stories to share with them? Did they all just figure that I must not have seen any combat? Did they view me as some kind of POG? I hoped to God not. A POG is a term in military language that meant "Person Other than a Grunt," a highly derogatory term used by grunts to reference all those rear-echelon motherfuckers who worked non-infantry jobs.

I debated if perhaps they needed to hear a war story to wake up a bit, one with lots of blood and guts to see me as a soldier. I thought to myself how could tell them about that one time... or this one other time where... I took a deep breath, working out how to begin telling these stories. Biting my lower lip in pain, pausing on the thought of that, I finally said fuck it.

I didn't want to tell any war stories. I don't know why this is, but verbally I just can't. Especially to strangers. That said, get me with my other platoon mates and that's a whole other story. We could go on and on all night talking war stories to one another. These students, however, weren't my fellow platoon mates. I was not just like them, and they were not just like me. So instead I moved on to more questions. One student asked, "Is the government doing anything to help those with PTSD?"

Resisting the urge not to laugh—or cry—I did my best to explain.

"Well," I began, "the VA, or Department of Veterans Affairs helps them. Takes weeks, sometimes months to schedule an appointment... You fill out stacks and stacks of forms... You can get service-connected disability, or money from the government every month... How much depends on what percentage you're rated... I've heard it can take up to a year and a half, that is if you're lucky enough for the claim to go through... There's a VA customer service hotline you can call to check up on its status... There's also a 1-800 number you can call if you feel like committing suicide... You can get a prescription for free anti-depressants from the VA... They also offer free counseling... private and group sessions... There's an app now that you can download on your smartphone to help manage your PTSD... There's also a hashtag... There's PTSD Awareness Month... Yeah, there's help available."

Somehow, during all that, the kids began loosening up a bit, maybe I had struck a chord with the sorry state of affairs for veterans with PTSD, or maybe they could just tell that the class was almost over.

"Did you ever think you weren't going to make it?" one asked. "That you were going to get killed?"

"Yes. Every time I put on my kit and left the base to go out on a mission—which was several times a day—in the back of my mind, I wondered if this was the day, if this was going to be it..." I trailed off and went on to more questions.

From there, the questions all came and went in a blur: "What was it like?" "Why'd you do it?" "Was it worth it?" "Did you believe in what you guys were doing?" "Do you have any regrets?" "Do you know such and such, he's my cousin, he's been over there twice?" "Do you think we should have been there?" "What did your friends think of you joining the military?" "Did you miss home?" and again, from the exact same girl who asked it before, "You never told us how old you were!"

Emotionally drained, I thought about hitting a bar after class. The medevac finally arrived in the form of the professor getting up from her seat and announcing to the class that time was almost over, but one last question could be squeezed in. Nobody had any questions. A student, off to the side, raised his hand just before the teacher was about to announce class was dismissed. He was soft-spoken and he started off by explaining he had family who had served, a couple having rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan, one relative who was there right now. The student said that though I had probably heard this a lot since being back, for all that it's worth, he just wanted to tell me personally, "Thank you."

The professor thanked me as well for taking time out of my schedule to speak with her class, as I forced myself a smile.

With that said, applause lightly filled the auditorium as everyone routinely got up to leave, as I just stood there, invisible again, but proud to be who I was, a veteran.

Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time In Iraq, Lost in America: A Dead End Journey, and Thank You for Being Expendable and Other Experiences. Follow him on Twitter.