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Jul 11, 2012
09:41 AMTalk about Arts
Iraq sucked and it felt great: A story of war and paradox
Brian Castner will read from his book The Long Walk and sign copies on Wednesday, July 18, 7 p.m. at Talking Leaves Bookstore, 3158 Main Street.
This smiling dad on a fishing boat is not the Brian Castner you will meet in his newly published book. He is the Brian Castner I know, the outdoorsy blogger whose post on snowshoeing caught my eye a few years back. This Brian Castner lives in Western New York with his wife and four kids, spending a lot of his time running, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and writing about it—for Spree, among other outlets. It may sound like an idyllic life, but all the while, he has also been writing The Long Walk, a stark and sometimes horrifying portrayal of his experiences as a bomb disarmer in Iraq and the aftermath of those experiences.
The Long Walk has just been released by Doubleday. Already, there has been a Fresh Air interview, with more National Public Radio coverage scheduled for stations and programs across the country. Already, comparisons have been made to such combat memoirs as Dispatches and to such writers as Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr. The book tells (mainly) of Castner’s two tours of duty as commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Balad and Kirkuk, Iraq, respectively, and his ongoing struggle to regain a civilian existence after his return stateside in 2006. Castner suffered blast-induced memory damage and other trauma that will remain with him the rest of his life.
I was curious about why Castner stayed as long as he did and why—as the book makes very clear—he still, to some degree, actually misses a life surrounded by explosions and death. We talked about this and more, as follows:
Spree: This doesn’t seem quite as unfamiliar as it might have been if I had not seen The Hurt Locker.
Castner: Yeah, although, on a technical aspect, that movie did have some Hollywood inaccuracies. As if we would take the bomb suit off to be comfortable—nobody ever says that. And we use a robot first—we lose enough guys being as safe as possible, without taking those kinds of risks. On the other hand, who wouldn’t want their job to be in a movie that won an Academy Award? And so much of it is so well done. Especially the ending. That felt exactly right.
The structure of your book is interesting. You go back and forth—you skip around between times and places.
I felt like I was getting away with something. My big fear when we sold the book was that that the editors would want to chop the book up and put it back in the right order. Because it’s taking a chance, it’s challenging the readers a little bit more to make them work to keep track of where they are.
I was trying to write it like it felt. It felt like I would go running and my brain was somewhere else, like I was in two places at the same time. And I would think “What would I be doing if I were in Iraq right now.” I took a chance that if I intermingled past and present tenses and gave the reader some clue of why the sections followed each other, that the reader would figure it out and come along for the ride. And I made the first chapter jump in the cold pond all at once—here’s what this book will feel like the whole way through. And then in chapters two and three, I have some traditional narrative to give the background.
My editor Gerry Howard has worked on so many amazing books—he bought David Foster Wallace's first books—and he was very supportive of keeping that structure.
You have a degree in electrical engineering. How did you get into writing?
The writing started when I was a kid. I went to St. Joe’s [St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institution] and had excellent English teachers like Jack Kenny [now at Canisius College] and Tom Zabawa [now SJCI vice principal]. Then, when I was visiting colleges, I wanted to be either a writer or an astrophysicist. The Air Force [Castner received an ROTC scholarship] wanted me to be an engineer and I wanted to be in the Air Force, so I took it. It took me a long time to go back to writing.
Engineering led to chemical warfare and chemical warfare led to EOD and EOD led to being a consultant. I went to the farthest branch of that career until I figured out that I should go back, and writing is what I wanted to do. It took that long, because I didn’t think normal adults with four kids should quit their jobs and write a book. Writing is the way I make sense of the world.
One sentence in the book struck me. You say, “Iraq sucked and it felt great.” All these impossible, brutal conditions, but you loved it. Why?
With the military, it might be a little about bravado or machismo or whatever, but for me, it was mostly the challenge. That’s always been part of me. At St. Joe’s, I was in the music program, and I was a terrible singer, the worst singer in the group. But I liked it because it was hard; it was a challenge. And so, I got through EOD school—30 of us started, 3 of us finished, check that one off—and now let’s go to war and do it for real. And there are mice and blowing sand, and people are shooting at me—ok, let’s do this one then and see how bad it can get. How can I test myself?
Did you ever feel as though the car bombs and suicide bomber would just keep coming and coming—the ultimate futility of it?
Yeah, in the middle of your tour, you’re just exhausted, and you’re doing the same thing every day with no result. How I think about the war is maybe different than the average civilian might, just hearing things on the news. There are definite phases. We invaded in 03. By the end of 03-beginning of 04, there are more of these IEDS and a real indigenous insurgency. By the end of 05, the mission is to get the elections out the door, so they’d have their own government. Nothing changed. In 06 it was just the worst drudgery—why are we here, what are we doing, and how is this making a difference. In 07-08, during the surge, they had enough of a database where instead of kicking in every door to look for bombs, they could go after one guy. I never got that tour. By 07, it was too overwhelming with my family, and I had to leave, or get divorced.
What led you back to Buffalo?
When I left in 07, and we were in Las Vegas [where Castner trained EOD teams], we finally were able to pick where we were going to live. We wanted proximity to the grandparents, the four seasons, the snow, and good schools for the kids. So my wife said, “Let’s move to Buffalo.”
What are the symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) for you?
I’m at one end of the spectrum—there are people at the other end who can’t even get out of bed. So I’m lucky. I have long-term memory issues, sleep disorder, and hearing issues where I can’t focus and always have to ask people to repeat themselves. The long-term memory loss is the worst. I feel like a lot of this stuff happens when you get older, but I’m 34.
In the book you talk about—as a civilian—being in airports where you’re figuring out who to kill, or wanting to keep a gun in your minivan. Have these feelings receded?
No. This isn’t a happy book. There is no recovery at the end. This is just part of me now, and instead of being bothered, I’ve learned to accept it. There’s no getting better, in that it goes away. It doesn’t.
Your relentless pursuit of outdoor activities seems to help you.
Some people take a pill every day for their high blood pressure. Everybody has their maintenance thing that they do. My thing is I go to East Meets West Yoga every Monday. I run like crazy. I was just on the Salmon River at Tughill plateau north of Syracuse this weekend, whitewater rafting. Because when I’m whitewater rafting, I’m not thinking about all this stuff. Because I have a vest, I have a knife, I have a paddle (which is like a rifle), and I have four people in the raft I’ve got to get down the river. I’ve got my little mission. They’re relying on me. When they fall out, I scoop them back in.
I didn’t think I was an adrenalin junkie, but it’s really about finding a healthy outlet. You miss getting shot at, because getting shot at is awesome. You need to channel that into something healthy. Like skydiving. When you’re about to fall out of a plane, you’re not thinking about your kid’s soccer game or the bills sitting on the desk. You need to struggle to live in the present. I refused to take drugs. I didn’t want to be someone else. I didn’t really make progress with psychotherapy until I added the yoga, the running, and the other activities. I didn’t want to medicate it away.
Are there many like you out there?
Yes, and the feedback I’m getting is “Thank you for writing it down; I feel the same way.”
How does your wife feel about the book?
I didn’t let her read it until we had sold it, and then my agent said “She really needs to read it.” But there was a lot that didn’t make it into the book. We did a lot of marriage counseling. She’s come to a better place because of it, and the book was a way for me to explain things I couldn’t during counseling. She read it on a flight to San Francisco and we had a long talk afterwards. She’s very supportive of it, and there’s something that’s been fixed.
And you’re working on another book.
It’s another non-fiction thing, but not a memoir. I don’t think anyone needs to read another memoir from me.
What about your general views on our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan?
When we got out of Iraq, people asked me what I felt. I can’t have an opinion on Iraq or Afghanistan without thinking of friends who are dead. I’m talking about really close, dear friends. I can’t untangle any of those feelings. The politics don’t matter while you’re there. Some people are for it, some people are against it, and none of it matters because the people who are against it go back too, You go back because you have friends you want to bring back alive. If my friend is there, than I should be there. That’s the worst part of getting out. Your friends go back, and you are not there to help.
At first I was ambivalent about getting out of Iraq—did we win? Well, we didn’t know what winning looked like, anyway. And finally, the most important thing was that at least no more of my friends are going to die there.