By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Veteran sandhogs are finishing tunnels for the future subway, right beneath your feet
Then there are the ex-servicemen. Local 147 can claim members from every branch and practically every American conflict over its century-long history. There's no telling how many veterans are in the union; no such records are kept. (Additionally, there are at least a couple of sandhogs still on active duty and awaiting redeployment.) They are a minority among the group; out of the approximately 100 sandhogs who worked on the finished segment of Second Avenue, Barr—himself a former Marine—estimates a dozen or so have military experience. But the two careers are strikingly similar, and these similarities have helped Tom Buzzell readjust to civilian life.
A few months into Buzzell's first tour in Iraq, throughout which he was stationed at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, a friend and fellow private first class was killed in a suicide attack. "I didn't see him, but I saw the Humvee he was brought back to base in," he says. "I just remember all the blood pouring out, like in that Mel Gibson movie When We Were Soldiers." During that same tour, an Iraqi government official was gunned down in a taxi. Buzzell was one of the first troops on the scene. "I opened the door, and the guy's brains fell out all over my boots."
Buzzell began his second tour at a forward operating base in northern Baghdad. "The place didn't even have a name," he says. Buzzell had been promoted to staff sergeant, and one night about two months in, his platoon was traveling down a dirt road in three Strykers. As vehicle squad leader, he was driving the first Stryker. It was raining. The road got muddy. The eight-wheeled transport vehicles kept getting stuck. Finally, Buzzell ordered that they turn back. A day or two later, once the rain had stopped and the road had dried, another platoon set out on the same route. A hundred or so yards from where he had turned back was an IED. There were nine men in the Stryker. Six were so severely wounded they never returned to combat. The other three were killed. Two had their spines crushed when they were slammed into the roof. The vehicle squad leader was blown out of the Stryker. "I heard he was just a pile of mush," Buzzell says. "He had a brand-new baby at home. He was always talking about that baby."
Toward the end of that second tour, Buzzell's platoon and three others were sent to reinforce an FOB that had been under increasing attack located just outside Sadr City. Its walls were only 15 feet tall, and the high buildings of Sadr City offered snipers unobstructed shots. Jerry-rigged ramps were propped outside the base walls, and pickup trucks and Jeeps loaded with homemade bombs of concertina, barbed wire, nails, and other miscellaneous shrapnel were launched over. Platter charges tore apart Bradley transmissions and sliced clean through the barrels of Abrams tanks. The living conditions didn't help morale. When the four platoons first arrived, there were no beds; they slept in the Strykers. They only got one hot meal a week; the rest of the time they ate MREs. There were no showers for the first month; they rinsed one another down with bottled water.
Somehow, during Buzzell's three months there, none of the four platoons' members were killed. Relative order was restored, and the platoons earned much renown. Once they were brought to a camp 30 minutes from the FOB so that they could shower and call loved ones. "You could hear all the whispers, see people pointing," he says. "'That's them.' 'Look, there they are.'" The adulation was all but lost on Buzzell and his fellow soldiers. "You hear about that 'thousand-yard stare.' We were sitting in this waiting area, and I looked around, and everyone had it." Buzzell, meanwhile, had removed a piece of cardboard from the packaging of an MRE and started writing down his personality traits. For the rest of his time at the FOB, he kept the list in his pants pocket. "I wanted my son to know what kind of man I was if I didn't make it back."
Once Buzzell returned home, it didn't take his wife, Roni, long to notice he had changed. "As soon as he got off the plane," she says. "He had no patience. He got agitated at every little thing."
"I told her it was normal," Buzzell says, "that it was bound to take us some time to get comfortable with each other again after being apart for so long. But even when I was by myself, I acted different. It was really noticeable when I was driving. In a Stryker, if anybody was in your way, you just knocked them out of it. Being in a car and having to obey traffic signals and watch out for other people was scary. My road rage was really bad. Before, if somebody cut me off, I'd just let it go—they're idiots. Now, I'd be trying to chase them down." Eventually, Buzzell sought therapy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He began taking antidepressants. This helped. But so did becoming a sandhog. "The biggest thing was the financial aspect," Roni says. "He started making better money, and that made him feel like he was more of a provider for the family than when he was at Avis. It helped give him that sense of purpose he'd been missing."