The Great North East Blackout of 2003 and the Fury of the Veteran (August 15, 2003)

I was leaning against the locked door that leads to the next car of the F train, hands in the pockets of a new $300 leather jacket I just bought with war money. I was home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. It was December, 2003. Saddam Hussein would be captured in a few days. I was heading to Manhattan from my parents’ home in Queens for some fun.

There were plenty of seats available but I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to watch. The light above me was out, casting my corner a little darker than the rest of the car. I leaned there, rocking back and forth, straining my abdominal and leg muscles to try and stay as still as possible, enjoying the way my back lightly slammed against the thick glass of the door, over and over again. I watched the silent, tired commuters sitting there, all bundled up for winter, listening to music, reading, sleeping, staring into space.

Not caring about the war in Iraq.

My mind raced back to Baghdad and the thought that somewhere out there, right now, some young American soldier like me was experiencing the worst terror of his life. Right. Now.

The train rocked to a stop at 169th street in Queens and the conductor said something inaudible. The bell rang and the doors opened, and then closed. No one got off and no one got on.

As the train lurched out of the station and got back up to speed, the rumbling drowned out anything but the conversation happening in my own head. I shouted to myself internally how these people had no idea what was going on over there, what we were doing for them. Look at them, they don’t even care.

I thought back to the summer.

August 15, 2003.

“Did you hear about this blackout back home?”

I shifted barely on my cot, turning towards the source of the question. I felt my damp skin lightly peel away from the canvas.

“No, what blackout?” I responded.

“Apparently there is a big blackout all over the northeast. Everyone’s bitching about it.”

“New York, too?” I asked, propping my head up in my hand as I lay on my side, suddenly a bit more interested.

“Yeah, they’re bitching the most.”

I laughed slightly.

“Waah! I’ve got no electricity and now I can’t go to work for a few days!” another soldier interjected from across the bay, overhearing the exchange.

“What do they have to bitch about? It’s like a 120˚ here and we don’t even have air conditioning. Plus, people are trying to kill us!” came another soldier, piling on.

“If they only had to do this for a couple – no, if they had to do this for like, one day, they’d stop their bitching.”

August 3, 2013. From Disgrunted Vet, a poem by Nathan Allen Hruska:

No, my countrymen would rather
regurgitate their professor rhetoric,

upgrade to the newest smartphone,
complain to their overpaid therapist,
blog about their first world problems,
while my friends are dead, or still dying.

How can I love my flag so dearly
and hate my country so deeply?

I started this blog post wanting to write about the blackout of 2003 from my perspective as a miserable soldier in Baghdad. I have been recounting my deployment for my blog and this was a unique moment in the deployment.

The theme of the post was going to be of the “oh you think you had it bad” sort. We were infuriated that anyone back home would complain about having a power outage when we were overseas in a terribly austere environment that was significantly worse. We were bitter and jealous, but also feeling entitled.

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but this generation of veterans – myself included, as per my internal tantrum on the F train – likes to compare any inconvenience that civilians might complain about to our current or worst possible circumstance, and then self-righteously declare that those people back home have no right to complain because at least they aren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.

This, I think, is probably one of the byproducts of being constantly reminded – mostly by ourselves – that we’re a part of the “less than 1%” who serve in the military. Then there are the predictable interruptions in sporting events and political speeches to “recognize the service and sacrifice of our military.” All nice gestures that have become robotic and meaningless through forced repetition.

Like Nathan writes about in his poem, and like I experienced on the F train while on leave, I think at some point we (veterans) can’t help but compare what we’re experiencing and what we’ve experienced to the candy-laden reality we see in the media. It can be maddening.

But it’s also unfair.

When Nathan writes about his countrymen preferring to update their smartphones than honor their war dead, it’s not an actual thing that is happening, just as when I stared hard at the tired New York commuters with hate, for – I don’t even know what. They just weren’t experiencing what I experienced, and it made me angry.

We roll our eyes at constantly being called heroes and blush at the unsolicited ‘thank you’s’ at the airport, yet we get outraged if someone complains about a power outage without mentioning how bad we have it on the frontier.

All that said, I think this is all part of the process of “transitioning,” a word that gets thrown around a lot in veteran circles without ever being really discussed. You can’t just read this blog post and suddenly understand that it’s okay to let people complain about losing their power, or to ‘ooh and aah’ over a new smartphone, all while American service members are fighting and dying overseas. I think, “transitioning” is a process that does not have a set timeline or result. Every veteran’s experience will vary. And it is a thing that has to be experienced as an individual. And that’s okay.

But seriously, you have no idea how hot it was in Baghdad 2003 and you have no right to complain.

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