A Farewell to IMs

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At age twenty-six, Colby Buzzell enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent a year in Iraq, where he blogged about his experiences. To mark this month’s publication of his book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, he wrote an exclusive essay for Nerve about how soldiers dealt with sexual and romantic frustration in the combat zone.

After my unit arrived in Kuwait by civilian plane, the first phone call I made was to my wife. I couldn’t talk to her for long because she was at work, on her way to an important meeting of some kind. This broke my heart. Still, I kept it short and sweet. I told her that I’d made it, that everything was going well and that I missed her. She made me promise to call her back a little later, when she wouldn’t be busy. We said our I love you‘s, blew kisses into the phone and hung up.
    Then I called my parents to tell them I was okay. My mom picked up. When she heard my voice, she immediately freaked out. “Oh my God! You already got hurt? What happened? What’s going on?”
    I told her to relax and that everything was going well. Relieved, she asked how I was able to call her. As I was explaining that there were several phone centers here where we could buy prepaid calling cards, a soldier got into a somewhat heated discussion a few booths away.


    “What do you mean you were out with friends? I called you six muthafucking times last night and you didn’t pick up once! (pause) What?! Bullshit, bitch! You expect me to believe that shit?”
    My mother asked if I was in trouble. I told her no, it was just somebody nearby. She said he sounded angry.
    “Bitch! I swear to God, if you’re cheating on me, I’ll KILL you!”
    I told my mom she was probably right.
    Not all my trips to the phone centers were as colorful as this first one. I’d usually overhear soldiers, sometimes tearful, telling their loved ones how much they missed them and couldn’t wait to come back home. But when it came to dealing with sexual frustration over there, the phone centers were just the start.
    After spending a couple weeks in Kuwait, my unit convoyed up into Iraq and began combat operations in the Sunni Triangle. Our first mission was only supposed to last a couple of days but took almost two full weeks. When we returned to our Forward Operation Base, one of the first things I did was make my way to one of the luxurious plywood port-a-shitters to take a dump. When I got there and opened the door, I saw several used travel-size jars of Vaseline and a couple expended tubes of lubricant littered on the floor. Jerking off while in the field was a common practice for many soldiers, a way to deal with sexual frustration and boredom. Saying “I’m going to go jerk off in my room” was about as shocking as saying “I’m going to go take a shit" after dinner.
    Pornography of any kind was not allowed in "theater," or the combat zone. However, when I went home on leave, at the customs brief I was told that having “personal sexual gratification devices” was acceptable. The only personal gratification devices that I knew soldiers had were their right hands, but apparently dildos and blow-up dolls were a-okay. Although spank mags like Playboy, Hustler and Swank were contraband, the PX stocked FHM, Maxim and Stuff, which sold like crazy after each issue arrived around the first of the month. All of them were pretty much required reading. Many soldiers used the full-page photos as wallpaper to decorate the walls to their living connex. (Living connexes are what we called our living quarters; they were like small dorm rooms: two soldiers per room, two beds, air conditioning, steel wall lockers and electricity.)

One of the most popular videos among the troops was the Paris Hilton video.

    Our unit was all-male, so the only place we could interact with the opposite sex was online. Our Forward Operation Base had several twenty-four-hour internet cafés. There were no lattes there, just a couple dozen computers in a tent or room, and a sign-in sheet. Some were free with a thirty-minute time limit, and some charged two dollars an hour. Every internet café I went to in Iraq had several photocopied fliers posted on its walls warning soldiers not to talk about mission specifics and to stay away from porn sites, but that didn’t stop some soldiers from downloading porn onto their laptops.
    While I was over there in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom Two, one of the most popular videos among the troops was the Paris Hilton sex tape. When that came out, it seemed like everybody was asking everybody else if they had it. Finally a soldier in my company downloaded it onto his laptop from one of the internet cafes, and everybody packed into his room that night for a viewing. I found the night-vision scenes interesting. To me, it looked like they were filmed thru NOD’s (Night Operating Devices), which is what we used to see during evening patrols.
    Many of the computers at these internet cafés came equipped with webcams, which were great for the married soldiers who wanted to see and talk with their wives as well as for the single soldiers who tried relentlessly to get girls to “support the troops.” I don’t know how many times I’d be at the internet café and the soldier sitting next to me would tap me on the arm and say, “Dude! Check it out! This chick’s got her webcam on, and I’ve been talking to her for like an hour now and I think she’s gonna finally take her top off for me!”

    I was too busy writing to my wife and blogging to surf around online, but one of the sites I saw soldiers spending way too much time on was hotornot.com. There, you rate a girl or guy’s photo on a scale of one to ten. If you’re interested in them, you can send them a text message. Several soldiers in my platoon had profiles there; one officer proudly went around boasting that his average score was nine.
    The military has always had a reputation for its high divorce rate, but I would suspect that if it weren’t for the phone centers and internet cafés, that percentage would be a lot higher. I was able to chat, e-mail and/or call almost whenever the hell I wanted to while over there. The only times I couldn’t really do this was when somebody got killed in Mosul. Whenever this happened, all the phone centers and internet cafés were closed until the family of the deceased could be contacted.

One friend of mine hooked up with three different women on leave. "What girl doesn’t want to date a hero?" he grinned.

    But even with the phone centers and internet cafés, deployment can be the loneliest experience in the world. Several guys dealt with this by talking with lonely women in chatrooms. Others posted personal ads on dating sites. One soldier in my platoon put an ad on Yahoo! Personals and complained bitterly when he got no responses. (That was probably because he listed his hobbies as "hunting, fishing and off-roading.") But I also knew a couple other soldiers who formed relationships and corresponded with several of the women they met. When one friend of mine went home on his two-week, mid-tour leave, he actually hooked up with one of the girls who responded to his personal. In fact, he had three dates with three different women lined up. He told me this was easy. "What girl doesn’t want to date a hero?” he grinned.
    One day late in our deployment, I noticed a soldier in my platoon walking around with an ear-to-ear smile and a glow about him; it was like he’d had the best sex ever with Angelina Jolie in his living connex the night before. I asked him what was up. With no embarrassment whatsoever, he told me that he’d met the girl of his dreams in a chat room. He said she had supermodel looks, was everything he ever wanted in a girl and that he was in love. I asked him where she lived. He said Australia. I didn’t want to rain on his parade too much, but I wondered if location would be a problem in this relationship. He assured me that it wouldn’t; as soon as we got back, she was going to fly to America to be with him. After this, all he ever talked about was this girl and how in love he was with her. I avoided him as much as possible.
    Near the end of our deployment, our entire platoon received an award coin. (A coin is a positive citation, and means as much as, say, a thank-you card). At the award ceremony, that soldier came up to me and said he was going to send his coin to the Australian girl. I never found out if he actually sent her that coin, or whether they actually hooked up or even met. But once our deployment was over and we got home, I did notice that the smile and glow he possessed in Iraq were no longer there.

©2005 Colby Buzzell and Nerve.com

Before enlisting in the U.S. Army at age twenty-six, Colby Buzzell lived in the San Francisco Bay area. He served more than two years, including a year in Iraq. There, he blogged about his experiences. This became the foundation for his book, My War: Killing Time In Iraq. He now lives in Los Angeles.

To buy My War, click here.