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Photo via Flickr user Vivian Chen

My Life Driving Uber as an Iraq War Veteran with PTSD

Colby Buzzell

Colby Buzzell

I took this job to escape loneliness, to give myself something to do, but I find myself more alone than ever.

Photo via Flickr user Vivian Chen

Stuck on my dashboard where everyone can see is my Combat Infantry Badge. It's a medal given to soldiers "who personally fought in active ground combat... engaged in active ground combat, to close with and destroy the enemy with direct fires." It's supposed to be a conversation starter, a way to bridge the gap between the passengers who are constantly coming in and going out of my car.

Almost no one notices it, or they notice it and just don't care.

I've picked up countless fares and only two have asked me what it was. When I told them it was an award I earned in Iraq, one guy went on a monologue—to impress me, I guess—about a distant relative of his who was in the Special Forces. The other said nothing beyond, "Oh."

Far more people ask me why I have a plain black-and-white Uber decal on my windshield and not one of those "cool" glow-in-the-dark ones instead. Others ask why I don't also have a pink mustache. But mostly my passengers spend the ride staring down at their phones, treating me like a machine while my thoughts drift, inevitably, to the voiceovers from Taxi Driver that have been rattling around in my head for months.

Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.

Except I'm not standing up. I'm sitting down, watching the city fly past my windshield.

My first experience with Uber was about a year ago, in early 2014, shortly after I found myself blindsided by life and woke up one morning unemployed and single, with nowhere to live. Living more or less out of my car, I crashed at my sister's place down in Los Angeles to regroup. I had just moved home to California after spending a few years in the Rust Belt, with plans of returning once I got my shit together. Never surrender. You might lose every single battle, but if you press on, you can still win the war. At least that's what my dumb ass thinks.

One night, my sister and I wanted to go out in Venice but didn't want to drive back drunk or pay a fortune for a cab. My sister pulled out her phone and pressed a couple buttons. Minutes later, a late-model Prius pulled up and we got in. Interested in what the driver was doing, I started asking questions. She was your everyday LA cliché: an aspiring actress living off Wilshire, doing some stand-up comedy, working on a screenplay. She was just Ubering to get by: It covered her rent and bills, and she made out all right. She would only drive till 10 PM. As a woman, she told me, driving any later would be unsafe.

I'm not a struggling actor. I'm another kind of cliché: your everyday unemployed Operation Iraqi Freedom combat vet with PTSD. I'd served in Mosul during the insurgency in 2003 and 2004. Our unit slogan had been "Punish the Deserving." I was a heavy weapons machine gunner. Having barely survived failed marriages, ambushes on Route Tampa in Mosul, and countless "movement to contact" missions in Iraq, how hard could this job be? What's "unsafe"?

Most of the time I'm completely invisible to the people I drive. Perhaps we're all conditioned not to speak to the hired help.

Besides, I've always wanted to drive people around. Years ago, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal once contacted me about the blog I was maintaining from Iraq. Later, he wrote in his article, "Army specialist Colby Buzzell figured he'd cap his yearlong deployment to Iraq by mustering out of the service this winter and easing into a new career. 'I was thinking about maybe driving a cab,' he says."

When I returned home, I decided to go ahead and fuck up the rest of my life by trying to become a writer instead.

I imagine veterans from previous generations either drove a yellow cab like the one Travis Bickle drove in Taxi Driver after he left the Marine Corps, or ended up driving for one of those veteran-run cab companies scattered across the country. For my generation of vets, that is no longer the case. In this new sharing economy, where anything can be summoned with the touch of a smartphone, hailing a cab is going to be as outdated as the use of ground troops.

Uber has been actively targeting military veterans for a while now. If you think about it, veterans are their ideal drivers. When my unit returned from Iraq, it seemed like nearly every single soldier I knew went out and bought a brand new car with their saved-up combat pay. There's a shitload of unemployed veterans out there with new vehicles to put to work.

In 2012, the Associated Press reported that 45 percent of the 1.6 million US service members who had been deployed to Iraq and or Afghanistan had returned home seeking compensation by filing claims for service-connected disability benefits. Hundreds of thousands of men and women have been forced to wait in a never-ending line alongside countless other veterans, all hoping to one day see the light at the end of the VA backlog tunnel. It's a line that eventually leads to a dead end, where some veterans literally die waiting for their benefits to kick in. The war has made us "the most medically and mentally troubled generation of former troops the nation has ever seen." Uber offers us a job to work while we wait for our benefits to arrive.

I've thought of suicide often. Where I live, people are already dead. But at night, I pick up people with lives, and money in their pockets, places to go, things to do, people to see.

The unemployment rate for veterans has improved since the worst days of the financial crisis, when it sat at 12 percent for people who had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and an incredible 30 percent for veterans under the age of 24. Still, post-9/11 vets had an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in February, compared to 5.5 percent of the general population. Many young vets welcomed the company's push to recruit us as part of their UBERMILITARY: WE WANT YOU initiative, which had the goal of hiring 50,000 veterans by 2016, "which amounts to roughly one-quarter of all the unemployed vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

In February, Uber announced that only one-fifth of that goal had been reached. Of those serving for Uber, it has been reported that "10,000 veterans have generated more than $35 million in take-home pay working for the $50 billion tech giant."

Not bad. I went ahead and enlisted in the UberMilitary.

It was easy, significantly easier than walking into a recruiting station and enlisting in the United States military during a time of war. No drug tests, psychiatric evaluations, written exams, driving tests, orientations, interviews, questions about my education or prior work experience—nothing. All I had to do was go to their website, pass their online background check, and do a brief ten-minute vehicle inspection at one of their locations in the city. In a matter of minutes, I became a grunt for Uber. I was employed, or self-employed, meaning that I was in charge of my own destiny, able to set my own hours, free to go AWOL and take as many vacation days as needed. I was my own boss. Everything was awesome.

Sure, I didn't get the "401(k) plan, gym reimbursement, nine paid company holidays, full medical/dental/visions package and an unlimited vacation policy" that those working on the tech side of Uber received. I also knew my chances of upward mobility were nonexistent. But my ass was just lucky to be employed and not homeless, holding up a cardboard sign saying "I'm a Veteran." Thank God for that.

My first night driving, I started around 9 PM and drove until 3 AM. All night long, in my head, CREDITS appear over scenes from SAN FRANCISCO NIGHTLIFE, jazz in the background. I can't stop thinking about Taxi Driver, about Travis Bickle and his loneliness and his stream of consciousness:

Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me. All night long I'm quoting the shit out of that movie, picking up and driving customers. All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem. I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some.

Makes no difference to me, either. Fuck it. I'm out here on the West Coast and I pick up whoever and take them to wherever, too. I take them to the Tenderloin, the Mission, Upper and Lower Haight, the Castro, even Oakland or sometimes San Jose. Like Travis Bickle, I don't care and I don't discriminate. You can't, with Uber. You follow orders, the same way you do in the military. You pick up whoever the damn app tells you to pick up and you follow the thin blue line on your app that tells you exactly where to go. It could be the four drag queens heading out to the Tenderloin, dressed up like Divine, reeking of shitty perfume, built like linebackers, all packed into my compact, four-door Kia Rio, screaming at me to hurry the fuck up and drive faster. Or it could be the passenger who just wants to go a couple blocks, who tells me to slow down while we cruise through a back alley and shoots up heroin silently in my backseat. It could be the little old lady carrying four bags of groceries who needs a ride home up one of the steepest hills in the city. It could be the girl in tech who wants to start a blog called "I Hate All Engineers" and is looking forward to spending $20,000 on a celebrity chef for her wedding. Or it could be the wasted bro who sizes me up and asks if I do MMA. "Why?" I asked. "You think you can take me?"

You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me?

I first saw Taxi Driver when I was a teenager. A friend of mine had a VHS tape, and I remember watching scenes of 1970s New York with wide-open eyes, taking in everything—the grim visuals of the city falling apart around antiheroic Travis Bickle, his long monologues dripping with pain. Bickle got to me. Forty years after the film came out and a decade and a half after I first saw it, I was driving around a strange city, Bickle's words filling my head again.

My first night of driving, after parking my car out in the Mission, I clean the empty beer cans and whiskey bottles people have thrown under the seat and check my phone to see how much I made. I almost couldn't believe the number on the screen: nearly $300 before Uber took its 25 percent cut. Some might have been elated, but I wanted to cry as I realized I could probably make more in one week driving for Uber than I did all of last year as a freelance writer.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.

I'm the modern-day Driving Miss Daisy. Since I don't work in tech, I'm the dark guy driving whitey.

What I like most about driving for Uber is how I get to really see the city. Thanks to a local nonprofit organization that assists vets who find themselves blackballed by life, I live alone in the Tenderloin, the last crime-laden slice of old San Francisco. I couldn't afford to live anywhere else.

My room consists of four white walls. On one of these walls is an original Taxi Driver movie poster. The tagline reads, "On every street in every city in this country there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody." It's been with me for years and hangs framed over by the twin bed that reminds me I'm damned to be alone. No kitchen, no closet, no view of the Bay. The lone window I do have has a view of the cement wall of the neighboring building. The shower and toilet are communal, located down the hall.

I've thought of suicide often. Where I live, people are already dead.

But at night, I pick up people with lives and money in their pockets, places to go, things to do, people to see. They get all dressed up and socialize with one another electronically via their cell phones. For me, it's fascinating: observing and listening to other people in the backseat of my car.

One guy explains to me that most of the twentysomething tech employees where he works make so much money they don't know what to do with it, since the only recreational activity they're into is video games. A professionally dressed young woman gets into my car and calls up her best friend to complain about her boyfriend: "He's always on his cell phone or computer, I see him work hard and fight for things at his start-up, but he never fights for things in our relationship."

It's no secret tech runs San Francisco. You're either part of the "haves" who work in tech, talk about tech, cater to tech, or try to make a living off tech, or you're part of the have-nots, the people who aren't in tech and are being driven out of this town. It's reached a point where I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet. Many who work in tech are living their lives as if it's the carefree Roaring 20s, while I'm more or less stuck in the Great Depression. I realized this when I picked up a techie outside one of the many big name tech companies located in SOMA. He was about my age and needed a ride home to his enormous house in Palo Alto, a good hour away. As he messed around with his cell phone, I realized that I'm the modern-day Driving Miss Daisy. Since I don't work in tech, I'm the dark guy driving whitey.

I'm also a veteran. I give Uber a PR boost. "Look, we give those poor, poor veterans a way to make money!" they can say. But veterans have experience being exploited, used up, treated as a statistic. As one soldier motto goes, "Suck it up and drive on."

Why doesn't this generation have the same opportunities as World War II's "Greatest Generation?"

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that "11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year." I'd say that's about the same percentage of people who will engage in a conversation with me. Most of the time, while driving these people around one of the most picturesque cities in the country, I just see the glow illuminating from their cell phones, radiating off their faces while they text. I can see them smiling, sometimes laughing. I follow the blue line guiding me wherever they're going. A robot could do my fucking job. Most of the time I'm completely invisible to the people I drive. Perhaps we're all conditioned not to speak to the hired help.

Some people do put their cell phones away and speak with the driver. Especially the liquored-up passengers after last call, like the guy who asked me if I've hooked up with any females while Ubering, or if I ever get hit on. I honestly told him, "No, that never happens."

When asked why not, I told him what a friend of mine who works in tech told me when I asked her the same question: "Think about it. You're an Uber driver. What girl wants to be with an Uber driver?"

She's right. Nobody's interested. Sometimes there'll be several people in my car, all having a jolly old time. I'm hardly ever included in their conversations, like the fierce debate as to what to do when a grizzly bear attacks you while camping (don't move vs. hit the bear in the nose), or the one that nearly ended in an all-out drunken brawl over the best burrito joints in the city (el Farolito vs. Cancun).

One pick-up I had was outside a restaurant in Hayes Valley. I had my hazards on while I waited patiently, observing them passionately kiss each another. They kissed as if they were in love. It reminded me of the way I kissed, when I too was in love. Their goodbye took forever and when she finally got in my car, she pulled out her cell phone.

"Hey honey, how's it going? Oh, it was boring, I wanted to leave the whole time. How are the kids? Good... Oh, remember that one coworker I told you about? I just found out he's been sleeping with all the associates... he's married too, I like his wife... he's a good guy..." I'm sure he is.

Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood. Each night I make my way out to the Mission to retrieve my car and pray to God nobody has smashed the windows in to steal anything inside of it.

You get a job. You become the job. I partially took this job as a way to deal with loneliness and to keep me out of bars, but the sad reality is that this job makes me feel far lonelier than I was at the start.

Sometimes I get so depressed driving that I just can't continue. I'll call it a night and, after parking my car, make my way over to Frank's 21 Club, a dive located in the Tenderloin, on the corner of Turk and Taylor. There, at the bar, I'll order drinks one right after another and think about my life, what I did wrong, how the fuck I ended up where I did, all the while staring at the sign located behind the bar that says, "Road to Ruin." But most nights, I suck it up and drive on and continue my mission, picking up passengers one right after another.

RELATED: The Invisible Scars of War

The other thing I have on my dashboard is a picture of my son, by the speedometer, to remind me to drive on. Nearly every penny I make goes to him, and toward the chance to live closer to him again.

According to my weekly reports from Uber emails, I average anywhere from $40 to $50 an hour doing this shit—by my count, it's less.

Sometimes, I tally up the things I've got going for me: I'm a veteran. I have an Honorable Discharge. I used my Post 9/11 GI Bill to obtain a work permit into the middle class, a.k.a. a diploma. Historically, higher education has helped generations of veterans go on to live nice, middle-class lives. So why is it then that when I apply for job after job after job, virtually no one ever responds? The scarce few who do tell me they only have part-time positions, jobs that pay only a fraction of what Uber claims to pay their drivers. Why doesn't this generation have the same opportunities as World War II's "Greatest Generation?" Why am I in the front seat driving, watching life go past me, instead of seated in the backseat fiddling around with my smart phone, enjoying it?

Uber periodically sends out emails profiling drivers, success stories, along with the hashtag #whyidrive. They all look like the shiny happy people who I seem to constantly pick up and drop off. The main reason why I drive is because it's a job and I'm not one of them. Who else is going to hire me? What else am I going to do other than write about it? Or perhaps maybe I drive because I've watched Taxi Driver one too many times and— I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.

Maybe one day, I keep telling myself. To become a person like other people: That would be nice.

Follow Colby Buzzell on Twitter. For more of Colby's work, check out his books.