Colby Buzzell’s anthology of short stories, Thank You For Being Expendable, is the punk rock alternative to Service Academy and/or Ivy League-educated military officer GWOT-memoirs. Buzzell is a hard drinking, chain smoking, enlisted Stryker Combat Brigade infantryman who not only fought in Mosul during one the deadliest years of Operation Iraqi Freedom but also witnessed firsthand the events of 9/11 in New York City.
His anti-hero narration of life experiences, ranging from being ambushed by insurgents along Route Tampa to smoking crack in his hometown of San Francisco, are completely unfiltered stories of wartime hell, substance abuse, American indifference towards the war, and his persistent struggle with the VA to help address the damage post-deployment PTSD has left in its wake.
A good number of Buzzell’s stories revolve around the endless frustration he feels regarding the VA health care system and their infamous phone-tree hotline that puts veterans seeking treatment for suicidal tendencies on hold for forty-minutes or more before scheduling them for medical appointments four to six weeks later. Recognizing the VA as a far from optimal solution to his problem, Buzzell eventually takes matters into his own hands and chronicles his ability to secure a California medical marijuana ID card over the course of an afternoon and purchase pot-brownies and lollipops. Capturing the suck of VA bureaucracy in words is an unenviable position for anyone suffering from PTSD. Buzzell turns it into a blood sport of sorts, articulating all sorts of contempt and disdain towards a system that has failed tens of thousands of his fellow comrades in arms.
Thank You For Being Expendable is much more than an extended rant against the VA; it’s also a travel journal that spans the globe. Buzzell tours Shenzhen, China to observe the miracle of capitalism as it transforms the city at warp-speed, then jumps to London in an effort to track down the famously elusive graffiti artist, Banksy. Some less-glamorous parts of the United States are given attention as well, including adventures in Mississippi, Kansas, Michigan, and Buzzell’s beloved “Tenderloin” district in San Francisco.
Few writers capture rejection from society quite so succinctly. However the converse is also true, as Buzzell waves the flag of defiance proudly in the face of nearly every American civil institution.
The reader should come prepared for a dark, lonely, brooding character at the peak of despair. At one point, he describes an experience working a job as an overly animated sign-waver, the type you see alongside the road at strip malls advertising five-dollar pizzas as “a great feeling…moving my sign up and down like a retard, while cars I’d never be able to afford drove past ignoring me.” Few writers capture rejection from society quite so succinctly. However the converse is also true, as Buzzell waves the flag of defiance proudly in the face of nearly every American civil institution. Broken laws, broken marriage, and all manner of anti-social behavior are signature elements of Buzzell’s writing.
Thank You For Being Expendable is a must-read for anyone interested in what the intersection between military life and counterculture looks like. Buzzell couldn’t be further from the soldier the American public sees on the big screen or in recruitment material. A rare moment of joy in “Thank You For Being Expendable” occurs as Buzzell celebrates the realization the Army is a more diverse institution than people give it credit for. With or without the VA’s help, we should be thankful he has found a way to survive long enough to tell his story and remind us of this fact.
Blair Schaefer is an officer in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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