Iraq vet writes vivid war memoir
Monday, August 6, 2012
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Brian Castner calls it "the Crazy," and he introduces readers of his debut book to this uninvited guest in the opening sentence of his Iraq war memoir.
"The first thing you should know about me is that I'm Crazy," writes Castner, employing the capital C to differentiate his affliction from run-of-the-mill, lowercase crazy.
"The Crazy" is Castner's name for the pressing, constricting feeling in his chest that started after he returned from Iraq, where he commanded Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal units during two tours in 2005 and 2006. Each time the Crazy hit him, it felt like he was having a heart attack. But emergency room staff couldn't find anything physically wrong with him. Still, the Crazy stuck around, like a new acquaintance he can't shake.
"I had this feeling in my chest that never went away and was absolutely intolerable," said Castner, whose newly published memoir of his Iraq experiences is getting national attention in media and publishing circles. "I didn't have a name for it because it didn't feel like nausea, stress or pain. It was completely new to me."
A therapist suggested he write down his feelings when the Crazy got particularly bad, so he began filling note pads. Eventually, he realized he had a story others might want to read. The result is "The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows."
Published last month by Doubleday, the 220-page book has been compared to other highly regarded war memoirs, including a pair from the Vietnam era, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Michael Herr's "Dispatches."
Castner's book intersperses stateside scenes of intense military training, off-hours hijinks and marital strife with vivid, often grisly accounts from Iraq's war-ravaged landscape, where his EOD teams disarmed improvised explosive devices, hunted for the bomb makers or cleaned up after their horrific handiwork while dodging gunfire and angry locals.
"I didn't sit down saying I needed to paint this picture exactly right," he said during a telephone interview from his home outside Buffalo. "I wrote the book scattershot, all over. I wrote whatever vignette I was feeling at the time, then spent a lot of time reordering things."
Most of the book centers on his second tour in Iraq. His first ended after just a month when he was "fired" as an EOD unit commander for disobeying an order regarding his request to get bomb disposal robots repaired for his team. After a brief time back home, he was redeployed to Iraq in May 2006 and spent the rest of the year in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad.
In Iraq, artillery shells "decorated the countryside like lost and forgotten lawn ornaments," Castner writes in "The Long Walk." The title refers to the distance an EOD expert clad in a Kevlar bomb suit has to traverse to reach an IED from the relative safety of his Humvee.
"When you've tried everything else and there's nothing else to do, somebody has to put on the suit and walk down there by themselves," Castner said.
Castner wrote bluntly in describing how he has been changed by the war.
"I liked the old me, the one who played guitar, and laughed at dumb movies, and loved to read for days on end," he said. "That me died from a thousand blasts. Died covered in children's blood. Died staring down my rifle barrel, a helpless woman in the crosshairs and my finger on the trigger. That me is gone."
Castner, 34, lives with his wife Jessica and their four sons — ages 3, 6, 9 and 14 — in Grand Island, not far from the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, where he grew up.
He played soccer in high school, but hated running. Now, one of the ways he keeps the Crazy at bay is to take long runs of five to eight miles, or more, along the Niagara River near his home.
"You're just so physically exhausted from running, there's no room for Crazy," he said.
Castner met Jessica in their senior year at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Castner graduated, received his commission as an Air Force officer and got married all within the same month in 1999.
"It sounds corny, but the bottom line is she stuck with me and we're better now than we ever were," he said.
After leaving the Air Force in 2007, Castner was hired by a defense contractor that trains military bomb disposal personnel. The job kept him on the road for more than half the year, but he has since cut back on those duties. He has attended memorial services at Eglin Air Force base in Florida, where he trained for EOD duty before heading to Iraq and its chaos and carnage. A memorial at the base lists the names of EOD members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, including some of Castner's former comrades.
"When we get together at the memorial to put names on the wall, three days before and two days after there's just nonstop parties," Castner said. "You party like crazy with the people still alive because they might not be alive next year and you may be putting their name on a wall."