With a half empty bottle of cheap wine in one hand (my third of the evening) and a DVD remote in the other, I sat on the sofa—eyes glazed over—numb. I was watching Taxi Driver, pressing the rewind button over and over again, replaying the same scene.
Wearing a Marine Corps shirt while doing pushups and sit-ups in his apartment, Travis Bickle narrates, “I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pull ups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on there will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”
I don’t remember much after that. The next morning with bloodshot eyes raised at half staff, I stared at my beat-up reflection in the mirror. I looked like a retired punching bag—killing myself slowly every night was taking its toll. Not only that, when I took my shirt off, I looked pregnant. After splashing cold water on my face, I wondered how difficult the first day of sobriety was going to be. Somewhere in that drunken fog the night before I promised myself I was done drinking and I intended to keep that promise.
Our unofficial unit motto when we deployed to Iraq in 2003 was “Punish the Deserving,” and shortly after we came back, I was discharged—like an expended 7.62 brass shell casing. From there, I guess you could say I was a functioning alcoholic. One of my inspirations for cleaning up was Sergeant Todd Vance. We served together in Iraq, and after getting out, he was a day laborer. He worked for minimum wage, laying brick all day, which he quit to attend community college courtesy of the GI Bill. After getting through that, Vance was accepted at a university—all while hitting the gym every day and becoming a competitive kick boxer. During all this time, I opted to self medicate.
What pains me now is the realization of how I’ve wasted away, perhaps the best years of my life, by drinking heavily with nothing to show for it. The first thing I had to do to quit drinking was to hate everything there was to hate about it. I began to hate myself for drinking so much for so long, and to look with disgust at bars and those who wasted away inside them.
To help reinforce this, I would go to bars and order water, then I’d sit there and observe those totally inebriated, those who were like me—who drank heavily, all the way to last call. I watched how they acted and listened to their conversations. I couldn’t do this initially. It took a couple months for me to be able to walk inside of a bar and walk out without any alcohol on my breath. My first goal was to lose all the pregnancy weight. I began to look at a beer as 150 calories, which meant I’d have to run a mile to burn it off. I don’t like running more than I have to, so I skipped the beer.
After being a drunk seven days a week, I began waking every morning at sunrise to hit the gym. Conducting PT (Physical Training) and weapons maintenance (weightlifting) reminded me of my time in the Army—running around the airfield at Fort Lewis and lifting weights at the gym with guys in my platoon.
In three months I lost 30 pounds in empty calories and went from barely bench pressing to 275. With no roids.
Next I targeted my mind. With happy hour over, it was time for Johnny to get his textbook.
The long string of students across from the Veterans Counseling Center at the City College of San Francisco stretched down the hallway and wrapped around the corner. I asked some girl what the line was for and she told me financial aid. After thanking her I walked right on by the have-nots. There was no need for me to wait with them since my college was paid for by Uncle Sam’s GI Bill. All of it.
I asked my school’s counselor what classes I would need to transfer into some fancy University of California school, like UC-Berkeley. He asked for my major, but I couldn’t think of any. He said pick one. Silence filled his office as I sat there dumbly. He then asked what I liked to do. I told him, “Writing.”
Minutes later he drew up a two year plan for me so that I could someday transfer to a university. And then he told me to go to class, apply myself, and get good grades. Checks would arrive in the mail. Thanking him, I could instantaneously feel my spirits being lifted, and it’s been a long while since I felt this good. My country was sending me a thank you card by taking care of me since, in a way, I took care of it eight years ago. I threw back on my sunglasses and thought to myself this is how life should be.
But that feeling was short lived. The first day on campus brought back flashbacks. Not of the war, but of high school and my first day of basic training where I was absolutely convinced that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I found myself spending the majority of my free time asking god please: “Turn me into a bird so I can fly far, far away.”
Making my way thru the Vaudeville on City College’s main campus, young students—I’d imagine many from the older generations would write off as walking examples of the decline of western civilization—began to overrun my position. A brain cell deficient stoner asked if I had rolling papers, another welcomed me with a “yo dog” when trying to bum a cigarette, a girl passed by screaming into her cell phone about beating another girls ass, a burnout from the ‘60’s was yelling Bob Marley quotes thru a megaphone, and an Asian lady was finding her Zen by doing Tai Chi. To top it off, not far away was a tiny table set up by anti-war activists; no interest whatsoever shown at their lonely table, none whatsoever.
The VA hospital has me clinically diagnosed with PTSD and none of this was making it any better. I felt like the old, un-hip creepy mid-thirties guy who somehow got dragged by his friends to Coachella in a sea of pre-pubescent teens. In an effort to block this out of my head, I reminded myself of how my father—a Vietnam vet—remembers seeing Korean War Vets on his campus. He recalls them being a bit older, more mature, many with families to support, but being good students. This gave me hope.
Most students on campus, I imagine, are oblivious to Veteran students. To the untrained eye they blend in quite well in their civilian attire, but like sharks smelling blood in the water, other vets can do the same. There are little clues that only we can pick up on, such as: the way you carry yourself, language you use, the high and tight, the dog tags, digital camo back packs, a PT shirt or t-shirt with your old unit crest, or the green 550 cord bracelet.
Sprinkled within this mosh-pit of students, I noticed other Veterans. I’m not talking just one or two, or even five or 10, but many, to the point where it literally felt like I was back on post again.
Everywhere I looked or turned I saw one, and they’d spot me. We’d exchange a subtle nod or even strike up the typical conversation most Vets have: What unit were you with? MOS? When were you over there? None would ask, what’s it like over there? Or my personal favorite, did you kill anybody?
While smoking a post-U.S. History class cigarette outside of Cloud Hall, a voice curiously asked me if I was a Veteran. I looked up, he’s about my age, from San Diego, Navy Vet, and worked in EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal). He talks with a laid back So-Cal drawl as if he’s maxing and relaxing back on the beach. He tells me that he was in the Middle East early on in the war around the same time I was. A job brought him up to the bay area and when he saw how much money he could receive by going back to school, he jumped on it. I asked him if he misses the military, and with a slight hint of regret he reminisces, “Oh yea, I thought it was going to be a career but…”
“My second Tour.”
Though I’ve only done one tour I nodded with understanding.
“I mean, I miss the professionalism of the military,” he tells me, “I mean we’re in that class, right, and I see homeboy sleeping on the fucking desk and if I was the teacher I would have kicked that desk and been like, get the fuck out! You don’t want to be here? Fine, don’t waste my time. You know, people all texting in class, and I’m just like what the hell is this, man?”
Hearing this from him made me laugh out loud since I knew exactly what he was talking about. His advice to me, “Just don’t give up, no matter how much bullshit you run into. So yea—that, and tenacity. You can accomplish anything if you try hard enough, you know?”
Academics have never been my strong suit. My final high school transcript has me rank at number 332 out of 344 students, which is nothing to brag about. But one of the many things I learned while serving in the Infantry are the phrases; “I can’t” and, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t do it” don’t exist. Especially while under fire.
I applied the lessons I learned while in the Army to my schooling. I hit the books hard my first semester and for the first time in my life, I made the Dean’s List. I fell in love with my two U.S. history classes and spent hours in the library reading on my own—General MacArthur’s landing at Inchon, General Sherman’s “March To the Sea,” and Patton in the Battle Of The Bulge.
For the first time since being out of the military, I now have a routine. I stay on this routine by forcing myself to stay focused and goal driven by immediately hitting the gym in the morning, and then taking Bart to school. While waiting for BART at the Balboa station one morning, I ran into a guy from my math class who, like many asked me if I was an Iraq War veteran (he had spotted my camo backpack). I noticed he had one of these black and white Shemagh Arab scarves (in Iraq we called them “Haji Scarves”) tied onto his rucksack. Due to their vogue-ness you can buy them at Urban Outfitters, I’ve seen too many hipsters rock them around their necks. Curious if there was any personal or sentimental meaning behind his scarf, he smiles and tells me it’s his personal reminder to himself on what he’s done, how he got here, and how he’s able to be go back to school.
It’s been awhile since I’ve hung out with my sister and when she saw me, she couldn’t believe how different I looked, or the story of how when I was sifting through the numerous English department textbooks, I saw an article that I had written was now published in the Norton Reader.
I also told her, that for the first time since being back from Iraq, I felt like I was finally home. School has been somewhat therapeutic for me and I intend to finish that two year curriculum my counselor drew up for me.
During a pause in the conversation she brought up our mother, which cast a dark cloud over things since she passed away from cancer the year before. All she got to witness towards the end were the years I spent as a drunk.
“Mom always wanted you to quit drinking,” my sister reminded me. “And she always wanted you to go back to school.”
It then hit me, since it didn’t even occur to me before that, I was doing everything my mom always wanted me to do. I finally quit drinking and was going to school. Realizing this filled my heart with regret since I should’ve done all of this much sooner. My sister then added, “Mom would be proud.”
Colby Buzzell served as a government trained trigger puller in the United States Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team during the Iraq War 2003-04. He is also the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost In America: A Dead End Journey.