Long before arriving at West Virginia University, Colby Buzzell emerged as one of the most meaningful voices of the Iraq War.
It all started with a blog that featured Buzzell’s take on the day-to-day events of the war from the perspective of an infantry man. He shared insights beyond what journalists knew about and what military officials were willing to discuss. The military shut down Buzzell’s blog after several weeks but it eventually morphed into an award-winning book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, which led to critical acclaim and further publishing opportunities. In 2004, Buzzell was profiled in Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” issue and has since contributed regularly. In 2007, Buzzell received the Lulu Blooker Prize for My War: Killing Time in Iraq.
Since then he’s emerged as a cautious, but willing correspondent. He’s been a featured guest on National Public Radio since his days in Iraq, and, as the days close in on the war’s 10-year anniversary, Buzzell’s thoughts are still in demand. Last week, he recorded a new interview with NPR and will be interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week. An op-ed piece he wrote is scheduled to run in The New York Times on Wednesday.
Although he admits that not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of the war, he also says that he’s more focused on earning his degree and his day-to-day life in Morgantown than his past.
“It’s been 10 years. I’m back and have transitioned out,” Buzzell said. “I guess it’s a historic marker or something but it’s just one of those things where it left me with a feeling of numbness and a ‘did that really happen,’ kind of thing.”
Personal circumstances contributed to the warped reality of his experience. He was assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team and served in 2003 and 2004. He was re-called for active duty in 2008 but, after he arrived at his post, he was examined by the medical staff and marked “not deployable” due to posttraumatic stress disorder.
Visits to the VA have helped him manage his PTSD but it hasn’t changed his impressions of the war, which he described as “surreal” and “never-ending.”
The invasion of Iraq seemed to polarize Americans. With questions about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 still lingering, some questioned the reasoning behind the invasion. Others thought the time was right to attack, and by removing Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s despotic leader, the U.S. would not only eliminate a potential global threat but also offer freedom to the Iraqi people
Buzzell said most of the soldiers weren’t immediately aware of the political climate in the U.S.
“We didn’t really think about that,” he said. “It was early on in the war and we all volunteered. None of us were forced to be there. I didn’t witness (the politics) until I came back (to America). I try to avoid both of those arguments.”
But, he said, “I knew soldiers who were very anti-war to begin with but then once they were over there they were like, ‘You know what, I think we should be here.’ And then I saw guys who were like way gung ho wanting to be there and they’d say, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ I saw a little bit of everything.”
Another phenomenon Buzzell noticed back in the U.S. was what he referred to as “war fatigue.” He said as the war dragged on, media coverage seemed to dissipate and the conflict didn’t seem to be at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
“After a while, it seemed like the American public was suffering through war fatigue and were sick of hearing about it,” he said. “They’d rather hear about pop culture or sports.”
Buzzell joined the army to gain a sense of purpose and direction. He said he did not excel academically in high school and was only mildly interested in attending college. He took a series of what he described as “dead-end” jobs and eventually enlisted after the U.S. had invaded Iraq in 2003.
“Why go to college if you don’t know what you want to do?,” he said. “Same reason I didn’t join the military (immediately after high school). If there’s no war going on, why join the military? That’s pointless.”
His approach to college was just as pragmatic but with a twist: he wanted to take advantage of his G.I. Bill benefits and attend college, but he wanted to do so in a place he’d never been before. A native of San Ramon, Calif., who had also lived in San Francisco, Buzzell had never been to West Virginia before attending WVU, despite a coast-to-coast drive that resulted in a second book, Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey.
He said some of his family members were familiar with the state. Their description seemed to fit his goal of finding a place far from home in which he could minimize distractions and focus on academics.
His first impression, waiting at the Visitors Resource Center for a tour of campus to start, has been a lasting one.
“I didn’t want to wait for the tour so I just walked around by myself,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this’ll work.’ I liked it. I’m from San Francisco which is very urban and I just wanted to go somewhere that was the opposite of that. Somewhere where I could concentrate, relax. West Virginia is known for its outdoors. I thought I’d explore some of that and maybe, in some ways I came out here for therapeutic reasons.”
Buzzell, who has two semesters left, says he has thoroughly enjoyed his time at WVU. He was originally a journalism student but switched to history because of the faculty. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, one his teachers, is among his favorites.
“I really liked how the history teachers taught their classes,” he said. “I found myself falling in love with history.”
His courses, he says, will help with future writing projects. And although he prefers to keep mostly to himself, Buzzell volunteers at a local VA office that helps counsel fellow veterans.
“They’re all super nice, super cool,” he said. “I haven’t had a bad experience here yet.”
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.
CONTACT: University Relations-News