Johnny Get Your Textbook

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…”

“What happened?”

“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.”

Perhaps.

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.

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38 Comments to “Johnny Get Your Textbook”

  1. Jen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. You have an inspiring story.

  2. Homefrontsix says:

    Your mom *would* be proud. We all are, CB.

  3. Honey Airborne says:

    Colby, what an awesome story you shared with us. The spirit is greater than we give credit for, it really is not that your Mom “would be proud” but she “is proud”, our inner strength comes from those who love us the most. Your Mom is with you all the time, and she knows she went to a place where she can do great things, great things for those she loves the most. When you believe in her you impower her, and you are here for those of us that need to hear your power and to share hers…and yes I am a Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran. My faith is in you Colby, you are on a good road and we are all proud of you, Hugs and kisses Honey Airborne!!!

  4. Kevin C. Mott SFC(R) says:

    Success…live it!

  5. Danny says:

    Colby,

    Thaks alot for sharing bro. I’m in Afghanistan right now on my 2nd deployment and was just going to get on the VA site to see some of the changes that get put into effect on 1 Oct when I found your article. I can totally relate, I’ll be 22 fresh out of a 4 year enlistment when I begin school in Nebraska next fall. And am always concerned with my age, and having grown up before going to school. You make me feel like being self conscious about this is foolish, instead be proud of your status as veteran turned student and be happy when you see others with their “camelback” back packs instead of avoiding them and trying to blend in with the teen boppers fresh out of high school. Thanks again Colby.

    Danny

  6. Maryanne says:

    Great writing – you picked a good major! I’m a HUGE believer in the opportunities that education opens up, and in the need for us to do everything possible to ensure that our Veterans take advantage of the opportunities and achieve success.

  7. Doug says:

    Hey Colby. Are you applying to transfer to Berkeley for Fall 2012? You’ll get in. Cal loves vets, especially ones who’ve made the Dean’s List and have stories to tell. We’ve got a good group of vets here.

  8. Ed says:

    Great story!

  9. Thank you for writing this. I’m a vet of the U. S. Navy, ten years, and have three degrees, financed mostly with USN Tuition Assitance, scholarships, and my Vietnam-era G. I. Bill. I’m an art professor now, and have a number of veterans in my classes. Most of my students are great, especially the vets, and yeah, I have my share of sleepers and cell phone users, but they don’t last long. I really believe in what I am doing, and really respect you for hanging in there. This country needs you, and all the vets, on the front lines of our national future. I’m actually working with a designer friend of mine to come up with a veteran’s T shirt for my college, as there are 200 plus in the newly formed Veteran’s Club. I plan to just give them away to the vets on campus, and can’t wait to see their reaction. I wish you the best in life, and urge you to continue to grow and enjoy your hard earned benefits.

  10. Rob says:

    I’m rooting for you! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne says:

    Many thanks for having the courage to share your story. It will help other veteran students and raise awareness of veterans issues in higher education.

  12. Ed Novy says:

    Thank you for sharing your story which I’m sure will continue on towards a successful graduation from both the 2 year & university you choose. Thank YOU for your service to our Country!!

  13. jan burden says:

    If you want awesome, read his memoir, “Killing Time in Iraq”. Colby is being much too modest. He is a fantastic writer. Along with “Jarhead”, his ranks as one of the best comtemporary military memoirs. Don’t miss it. Tough read sometimes, but really well done.

  14. Colby says:

    Thank you all for your comments and kind words- I really appreciate that. Danny- when i was 22 I felt the exact same way you did, that i was way too old for school, so i can relate- but a college diploma is your work permit into the middle class and the Gi Bill is such a sweet deal that it’d be somewhat foolish not to use it- plus you’ll meet tons of other veterans on campus who can relate to you which will make the transition way easier. In retrospect I wish I would have gone to school right after I got out of the military- it might have helped with the transition. Doug- heard the same about UC Berkeley- good group of vets there but I actually applied to an out of state school- need a change of scenery kind of thing. Again, thanks all for taking the time to read this.

    • Susan says:

      My sister is 51 and going back to school after being called up by the Naval Reserve for a tour in Afghanistan. Plus she has a ten year old and teenager. Bbut this is only the tip of the ice berg of what she is going through. There are plenty of “old” people going back to school.

    • Doug says:

      Cool man. I hear ya. I’m bouncing as soon as I graduate (depending on where I go to work/grad school). A true inspiration. Good luck!

    • Harry says:

      Colby,

      Not to discourage you (or fellow vets), but sometimes PTSD symptoms last a lifetime. It has ben 41 years since I left my artillery combat base in Vietnam and my wife and I just got back from visiting Quantico, VA and our *first* Marine Corps reunion of my old battery. We had a great time together and we’re looking forward to next year’s reunion. Approximately 20% of those attending our reunion were functioning alcoholics. Some had not even mentioned Vietnam for over forty years. Someone said it was a lot like going to a PTSD-like group meeting.

      Understand that you’re not alone. Many others have had similar struggles and similar victories and have come out the other side to lead productive lives. Every war and every military conflict leaves in its wake men and women who cannot cope without some help. I thank God that education has been a way for you to cope and to reintegrate into society. Your will and determination will carry you far. What’s past is past.

      I was ‘functioning’ when I came back to “the world” after my brief tour with the Marines. But it took ten years (and a failed marriage) to recognize that something was wrong with me and I was facing a terrible future. In desperation, I turned to God one afternoon (in my early thirties) and the moment I called out to Him, He gave me peace. He began restoring my ‘wasted’ years and gave me my life back. It’s now been thirty years since that day and I am happily married with grown kids and I can now say I’m proud of my life and what God has been able to do for me and through me.

      Semper fi,

  15. Jenn says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I hope you consider finding time to volunteer or a career in helping our fellow veterans. Many don’t have the strength to do what you have on your own. May God bless, and please keep us up to date on your progress!

  16. Tony C. says:

    Colby-
    Glad to see you’re making reams of progress, and continuing your writing process. Adios>
    -tony

  17. Laurel says:

    Good for you, Colby! So happy for you. By the “comments” that have been left here, I see you’ve already inspired some of your fellow Vets. We’re thinking positive for you. Keep us posted as your journey progresses. BTW, when my Kindle arrives, I will be downloading your latest book, “Lost in America”. Can’t wait to read it. I love your smooth style and your (sometimes warped!) sense of humor. You always make me laugh! I’ve sent several copies of “My War” overseas to our deployed troops, a couple of whom hail from the SF Bay Area, too. Take care…we’ll be thinking of you and cheering you on every step of the way! ; )

  18. George says:

    You story is mine but with 37 years apart. I wish you all the best ! I did enjoy the college life .

  19. Jerome says:

    Very inspirational Colby. I can see you hitting the motivational speaker circuit, penning bestsellers, and helping others who may be walking down the same road that you once walked. God bless you and keep marching forward. Oorah!

  20. shawn says:

    Great to hear how you turned the corner and took advantage of your gift. I was also part of the Stryker Brigade at Ft. Lewis, 5-20 INF until my ETS in 2004. When I was reading your article it brought back many memories of the lifelong friends I made while stationed there. Like you I completed my degree with the GI Bill and have greatly improved as a person because of my service and now education. Thanks for the article and the inspiration many veterans will have because of it.

  21. Heather says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Your story is inspirational and it fills me with hope for the men and women that walked in your shoes. I have not served in the military but I work with veterans every day and I want to understand their perspective and their struggles as they adjust to civilian life. And I will absolutely be reading your book! Thank you!!!

  22. Katrina says:

    Wonderful to hear that you are on track and doing well. I read “My War” a couple years ago and always wondered what happened after. I work as a Veterans Service Officer and its great that I can relay the accomplishments of other veterans.

  23. charmaine says:

    Colby, thank you for being such an inspiration to fellow vets out their both male and female. As a vet, I encourage other vets to take advantage of all the resources that’s available out there to help with the transition in coming back home..

  24. Brian says:

    Colby,

    I served with US Navy during Desert Shield/Storm era. I completed my BA, (an MA with the help of TA (tuition Assistance while active duty), got 6 hours left on an MBA, and am
    1 semester away from an MSW. This was made possible thru Voc Rehab. I am interning at a Vet Center, and will be working as a readjustment conseling therapist. Your story is inspiring. Anything is posssible. I talk to vets every day who have overcome big issues in life. Stay strong and finish……for yourself and your mom.

  25. James says:

    All I can say is “WOW”. wow. I cant express how much I can relate to this short story in writing. Out-fuggn-standing work capturing “our” expirience(s) as combat veterans. I will definitely be on the look-out for more of your material.

    “Smitty”
    US Army Ordnance Corps
    OIF 1

  26. emily W. says:

    Very true. It is easy to spot each other, though harder to spot us female vets. We don’t tend to continue wearing our hair in buns and running around in old PT or ACU shirts. But we’re right there with you: in your classes, in the grocery store, at the movies…and we face the same challenges. Your story is a good one. It gets easier, you know, getting over yourself and doing what you know you need to do. And along the way you inspire others to follow suit. Good on you, man. And Godspeed to wherever you’re going.

  27. Jess says:

    Thank you so much for this; it spoke to me in a way I can hardly describe. I got back from Afghanistan 8 weeks ago (my second tour) and went back to school three weeks later. I am 8-9 years older than my classmates in my freshman year bio class. I walk around campus some days feeling lost, wondering what compelled me to come back when there are so many people that I can’t relate to. Or who can’t relate to me. Then I remind myself that 6 months ago, when I was sitting in a bunker in the middle of Afghanistan waiting for the “all clear”, all I could think about, all I wished for, was to be back here on a college campus worrying about getting my homework done. And then sometimes, I’ll notice a camo backpack in front of me and smile to myself, knowing that I’m not alone.

  28. Barbara says:

    Your mom IS proud. You should be too.
    I’m an Air Force vet and back in school after decades – I’m going to complete my communications degree and work as a veteran’s service officer.
    Rock on, my brother. I cannot wait to see your GPA.

  29. Sheila says:

    Let me add my ‘congrats’ to those of everyone else.
    YOU should be proud of YOURSELF.

    Have you every considered helping (mentoring) other veterans who are experiencing the same problems that you did? I don’t know if there is anything better than veterans helping veterans.

  30. Carol says:

    Colby, you are an inspiration to ex-veterans and civilians alike. And you know something else? You weren’t too late. Your mom IS proud of you.

  31. Rachel says:

    Colby,

    This is a great story and you are a great inspiration. I returned to college in 2009 after many years of doing nothing after separating from the Air Force. It is not easy and I myself feel old , early 30′s is not old, and can’t really deal with the immaturity of today’s youth but I love going to school. If only the GI Bill lasted forever! The first year I hestitated to tell anyone I was a vet, especially an Air Force vet because everyone in the AF flies planes. I guess. I am going for a nursing degree with the purpose of working at a VA Hospital with veterans. This is my comfort zone. Where I feel most understood by people and I feel that patients would feel the same about their nurse who was also a veteran and served one tour in Iraq. My going away present from the Air Force. Keep up the great work. I also see you wrote a book and I plan to read it since this article was so good.

  32. Jesse says:

    Reading your story brings back so many memories of myself coming back into civilian life and trying to cope with civilians that don’t have the slightest clue on what vet’s are going through. I did go back to school and received my BA degree and now working on higher education because a BA degree sometimes isn’t enough to qualify anymore within the government. I work for the VA and I have found that they hire non vets straight out of college at GS pay grades that are a lot higher then what I was offered when I accepted a position for the Regional Office. Starting at a GS4 was hard to swallow knowing I had a degree and to see a non vet with the same degree that I have qualified for a higher paying position and getting paid 3 or more pay grades then I working on disability claims for other veterans. I have been there, I have served in combat, and I have the same degree but the VA for some reason would not consider me for that position. Instead I qualified for a file clerk and I have the same education plus experience as a soldier so I know what to look for and I know what the veteran is going through. It got to me so much that I had to search for another job within the VA.
    Life isn’t always fare but I served and I battled my demons like this fellow that wrote this article and for some reason I can’t catch a break. I am so thankful to even have a job and benefits and there isn’t a single day that goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am to have a job in this economy. I would go back into the Army in a second if I wasn’t injured or married with a 16m old son. All I want is for a fare shake along with other vet’s like myself. So many non vet’s work for the VA (Regional Office) and there are only a handful of employees that are veterans.
    I’m sure every vet that has read this young man’s story can relate to it and have had to battle their own demons in all different ways but the drive and discipline keeps us motivated to adapt and overcome. It’s just really hard when you give it your all and then you find that the VA hires almost 40 new employees straight out of college and my application never made it through the hiring pool. I was told that they had too many applications and that they never received my application on 2 separate occasions when I had a copy and confirmation that HR had my application to begin with. I’m not the only one that this has happened to and I’m sure I won’t be the last but I do know that several other vets’ were overlooked during both of those hiring pools that they had while I worked for them.
    All I can do is…

  33. MrsK says:

    Colby:

    Thank you for your service and sharing your story. I work with veterans everyday and although brought up in a military family I cannot “fully” relate to what my employees and customers may be going through or have suffered in the past. I depend on talking to them, reading and researching, as well as running across individuals such as yourself.

    As a supervisor and a very grateful American, I feel it is my responsibility to do what I can so I can better understand and work with veterans. Thank you again for the inspiring and informative story. I will be sharing this with my staff, I know some of them are going through these similar struggles.

    I do this to not only demonstrate my appreciation but in hopes of better serving those who have served.

    Many blessings and thanks to you.

  34. Flora says:

    I just finished reading My War, and it was seriously great. I wanted to thank you for your service and for the perspective you gave me on the war in Iraq. I don’t want to call you an inspiration, because that’s just some corny bull. But you are by far my favorite Anti-Hero.
    Thanks.