For Soldiers Like Me, Cigarettes and War Are Inseparable

From blackmarket $40-a-pack Marlboros to free smokes bummed at car-bomb checkpoints, nicotine is a soldier’s best friend—and addictive in a way a civilian can never understand.

The last time I quit smoking was years ago, back when I was government property.

For whatever reason, I’d enlisted in the military, and when I arrived at Fort Benning, I was immediately informed that tobacco products of any kind were absolutely prohibited during basic training. While standing in formation, our drill sergeant told us the reason we couldn’t smoke was because our “asses” all now belonged to the government, and so smoking would be tantamount to “destroying government property.”

I thought I’d smoked a lot before I joined the Army, but I hadn’t smoked at all. Unlike what you see in the recruiting commercials, most of wartime is spent doing nothing except waiting to be told by someone what to do. And sometimes that could take hours, and during those hours you’d sit and smoke and joke with your fellow soldiers, and if you didn’t have any smokes you’d bum 'em off someone who did.

You’d ask the Iraqi for a cigarette, and these nice Iraqi people would give you their entire pack.

One soldier in my platoon who’d already been in the military for a couple of years brought two cartons of cigarettes to JRTC, and the guy didn’t even smoke. Claimed he’d never smoked a cigarette in his life. But he knew that after a few days out in the field, once soldiers started running out of smokes, they’d pay anything for them, and when that happened, he’d open up shop (his rucksack) and sell them to his nic-fitting colleagues for $40 a pack.

Once we got to Iraq, one of our first missions was in the infamous Sunni Triangle. It was only supposed to last two or three days, but of course it went on for nearly two weeks. After day three or four, everybody in my platoon started running out of cigarettes, and all the smokers began turning into crack addicts, like they’d almost gotten to the point of offering oral sex for a cigarette. A guy in my squad told us all not to worry because his sister was sending him a care package with a full carton of smokes, and as soon as it got there, he’d share the wealth and we’d all have nicotine. We waited anxiously.

But in the meantime, we were out in the field, where it was highly unlikely that we would have a mail call. Thus, we were all in a world of shit, so we improvised: We began acquiring our smokes when we did Traffic Control Points.

TCP’s are kind of like those damn sobriety checkpoints we have here in America, but instead of looking for drunks or stoners with nickel bags stashed in the glove box, we were looking for terrorists and praying that the car ain’t a goddamn car bomb.

Sometimes the Iraqis who would pull up would be smoking cigarettes, and we quickly discovered that TCPs were a great way to obtain smokes. You’d ask the Iraqi for a cigarette, and these nice Iraqi people would give you their entire pack.

Out platoon leader, being a goddamn nonsmoker, caught wind of this and quickly put the word out that we were not authorized to obtain cigarettes from the Iraqis. And just like that, we were all back to nicking out in the field.

A few days after this, we did have a mail call, and the soldier who’d asked his sister for a carton received his care package. We all circled around him as he opened it, acting like we were his best friends. He dumped the contents onto the ground, looking all over for the carton. He couldn’t find it anywhere. Then he picked up the letter his sister had written. It said she had forgotten to pick up the cigarettes, and that they would be in the next care package. It was amazing how fast his approval rating dropped after that.

When you couldn’t smoke—like at night, when the red cherry would compromise your position—chewing tobacco was a nice alternative. I grew up in California, a state where I never met anybody who “dipped.” But one of the lovely things about the military is you meet people from all over America, from states where seeing people with a dip in their mouths is as common as seeing somebody with an espresso in their hand in California.

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I told myself that once I got home from Iraq I would quit smoking, but of course, that lasted half a second. I’ve been chain-smoking ever since, and shortly after I got out of the Army I found myself at a coffee shop in Los Angeles. I was wearing something that suggested I’d once been in the military, and when I stepped outside to sip my cup of coffee and enjoy my morning smoke, a hefty lady with a several plastic bags filled with what looked like her personal belongings began to talk to me.

She asked if I’d served in Iraq, and I told her that I had, and when I pulled another smoke from my pack, she told me not to do that. I threw her a please lady, don’t fucking talk to me vibe, then ignored her and took a long drag. When I went to sip my coffee, she said, “You need to stop doing that as well.” Irritated, I stared at her long and hard. By the way she was talking, I thought she might be my mother. Thank God she looked absolutely nothing like my mother.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

She introduced herself as a veteran as well, from the first Gulf War, and for a second I felt bad for being a jerk, especially when she went on to tell me about how she suffered from PTSD. She asked me if I smoked a lot during the time I was in Iraq, and while taking another drag, I told her, “Yeah, I smoked a little bit more when I was in Iraq.” She nodded, like she knew exactly what I was talking about.

Then she asked if I drank more coffee since I got back from Iraq. I thought about that for a second, then told her that I did—I drink at least a pot of coffee a day. She also commented that I looked hung over, and she asked if I drank more alcohol now. I told her, “Yeah, I drink a hell of a lot more since being back, but that might be because for a year there all I did was think about drinking, and now that I’m back I feel the need to catch up.”

More nodding. And then she said to me that while getting treated for PTSD at the V.A. hospital, she learned the reason I drank, smoked, and caffeinated so much more since coming back from Iraq.

She explained that while I was in a combat zone, my body, without me knowing it, was releasing endorphins, and that I was constantly on an adrenaline high, even if we weren’t doing anything at all. When I came back, my mind and body were still on that high. My body still needed these endorphins, she said. And so I was seeking out stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol to compensate not being high anymore.

I thought about that for a second. This lady, like I said, was overweight, and I wondered if she was overeating because of these same endorphins. But I didn’t have the courage to ask—perhaps if I’d been drinking alcohol instead of coffee, I would have. When she told me she missed the war, and wished she could go back, I thanked her for her time and excused myself, and lit another smoke as I walked away. As I left, she called after me again to tell me to quit my vices.

When I got home, I made myself a pot of coffee, and while smoking another cigarette, wondered if there any truth to what she had said.

Colby Buzzell is the author of the book My War: Killing Time In Iraq. In 2004, Buzzell was profiled in Esquire magazine's "Best and Brightest" issue and has since contributed frequently. In 2007, Buzzell received the 2007 Lulu Blooker Prize. He currently lives in San Francisco, California and is working on a second book.