Friday, April 19, 2013

Review - The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner

Brian Castner's The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows is his memoir of three tours of duty in Iraq, two of them as the commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, and his life after coming home, dealing with "the Crazy."

Here are the first few paragraphs of the book:
THE FIRST THING you should know about me is that I’m Crazy.

I haven’t always been. Until that one day, the day I went Crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore.

My Crazy is a feeling. It’s the worst, most intolerable feeling I’ve ever had. And it never goes away.

When you’re Crazy, you make a list of people you have told, the people you have come out to. My list is small. One best friend but not another. Jimbo and John and Greg, but not the other guys on the team. Your wife but not your mother. Those that you think will get it, will understand.

And now I’m telling you. That I’m Crazy, and I don’t know why.

The second thing you should know about me is that I don’t know how to fix it. Or control it. Or endure from one moment to the next. The Crazy is winning.

So I run.

I run every day, twice a day sometimes, out the front door of my peaceful suburban home, past sticky blast scenes of sewage, and motor oil, and bloody swamps of trash and debris, ankle deep, filling the road, sidewalks, shop and house doorsteps. I run through dust clouds, blown in off the desert or kicked up by the helo rotor wash. I run past the screaming women that never shut up, don’t shut up now. I should have made them stop when I had a chance. I run as fast as I can, as long as I can, my feet hitting the pavement in a furious rhythm, along the river near my home.

I run in the hottest part of the day, the full afternoon blaze, the heat of the black asphalt, baking in the summer sun, rising through my shoes and into my feet. I speed up, but the Crazy feeling is still winning. It overwhelms. Sweat pours down my flushed face, in my eyes. Albietz is chalk white skin and brown dried blood from head to toe.

Aside from Johnny Got His Gun, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five (all novels, although Vonnegut based his novel on his experience as a POW), I am not a huge fan of the war genre in literature, fiction or non-fiction.

Fortunately I am open to new things. A friend of mine highly recommended Castner's memoir last Friday, I bought it that same day, and finished it this morning. It is without doubt one of the most engrossing memoirs I have ever read, and with no ghost writer it is exceptionally well-written and constructed.

The sentences are often short, almost staccato, and Castner uses an image ("the foot in the box") as a hook throughout the text that seems at first part of his PTSD and then is revealed - in an unexpected way - that sheds light on the theme of the memoir.

There are a lot of action scenes set in Iraq, in the field, doing their jobs - all of which are riveting because of the imminent threat of death, and made even more so through the writing style. But there is also humor, brief glimpses of joy, yoga, and the daily battle with "the Crazy."

This is a book, in many ways, about men working with men in a predominantly male world. Yet I think the women who love men who have served in Iraq might better understand their men through this book.

Highly recommended - this was an Amazon Best Book for 2012.

For those who want more of a review, here are some links.

New York Times – August 19, 2012
Dallas Morning News – July 27, 2012
The Boston Globe - July 20, 2012
The New Yorker – July 12, 2012
USAToday - July 12, 2012
The Daily Beast – July 2, 2012

Here is a segment from NPR's Fresh Air that aired last summer.

'The Life That Follows' Disarming IEDs In Iraq

July 08, 2012

Listen to the Story

Fresh Air from WHYY
44 min 17 sec

Read an excerpt of The Long Walk

Brian Castner arguably had one of the most nerve-wracking jobs in the U.S. military. He commanded two Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq, where his team disabled roadside IEDs, investigated the aftermath of roadside car bombings and searched door to door to uncover bomb-makers at their homes.

"We would disassemble the IEDs when somebody else found them; we would go on route-clearance patrols with the engineers to trip the ambushes before they would hit our convoys; and we would do the post-blast investigations," Castner tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Hopefully we would find weapons caches and dispose of a lot of this bulk ordnance before it would be used as an IED. ... But there was no getting rid of all of the bombs."

Sometimes those bombs would go off and Castner's team would be responsible for investigating the gruesome aftermath.

"You would show up and the loved ones would already be picking up bodies or pieces of bodies and they're already loading the destroyed car onto a flatbed, and it's bad enough that you're out there doing this but they're getting in the way of you doing your job," he says. "We could be there for 10 minutes. Because the longer you're there, the more chance you have to get shot at or have a mortar dropped on your head. So you get out as quickly as you can."

In his memoir, The Long Walk, Castner chronicles his three tours in Iraq and the life that followed when he returned home as a different man, unable to forget what he saw or experienced in Iraq. He describes his experiences as "Crazy" — a term that is often repeated in the book.

"You don't want to be a caricature of yourself but that's what it felt like I was turning into," he says. "And I needed a word [for it]. And if you're nauseous, you know you're about to throw up and if you have a headache, that's called pain. But I had a physical symptom that I didn't have a name for. ... So 'Crazy' was the best way to describe it."

Castner also had physical symptoms in addition to the problems in his mind. He began experiencing cognitive side effects related to his close exposure to blast attacks. In recent years, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Long-term-memory problems, hearing issues and sleep apnea have plagued his body.

"The one that really bothered me, by and far, is the long-term-memory loss," he says. "I've got some sections of when my kids are younger and when my wife and I met and really the first three-quarters of my marriage that I simply don't remember. ... That was part of what I was working through [when I wrote the book]. Why can I remember the day of six [car bombs] so well but I can't remember my kids being born?"

Brian Castner served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006. Joey Campagna/Courtesy of the author

Interview Highlights

On transitioning to home life

"The stakes were all too low suddenly. Whether I did the dishes or not didn't seem to rise to the challenge of what I had done before. When nothing is important anymore, everything is important. Little things start to become too important and you start to become obsessive over the details. And that obsessive part of my brain that kept me alive in Iraq went into overdrive and it became the hindrance. It got in the way."

On why soldiers tie their ID and blood type around their feet instead of their hands

"It turns out that you put your blood type and your NKA (no known allergies) on my foot and you stick a dog tag in your laces because it's the part of you that's most likely to survive if you get blown up. We found feet a lot. If you're going to find a part of the bomber or victim, you might find their head. It's a better chance that you're going to find their hands and feet."

On arriving at the scene of an IED after it went off

"You become numb to it eventually. But I would never call it business as usual. And in fact, the post-blast mission is one that only really developed as the war went on. When I initially went through EOD school, there was no section of the training that was called post-blast investigation. On my first trip to Iraq in 2005, the first time I did one, I had to ask, 'Well, what does that even mean? What do you want me to look for?' "

On the long, lonely walk that was also portrayed in the 2008 film The Hurt Locker

"I put guys in suits all the time and I gave them the approval to put on the suit and go down nearly every day. And it is certainly the longest, loneliest walk that you will ever take. For an EOD guy who is used to being in control and accomplishing the mission, it is certainly more terrifying to be the one in the suit. But not having the sense of control to be the one used to just drive me nuts — to watch them walk down. Neither I nor anybody else can help them in that moment."

On giving the command to shoot a man who he thought might be triggering an IED

"It does not weigh on me because we made a mistake because mistakes happen in wartime. Everybody's just doing the best they can to survive every day. And so I don't regret it from that perspective. I felt like I wanted to give Trey [who was in my unit] the cover to do what he needed to do [which was disarm a potential bomb in a car] because I felt like that was my responsibility. If something bad happened, I wanted to have whatever was going to happen land on me instead of him. If there was an investigation or if there was some sort of wrongful death inquiry, I wanted them to come talk to me.

"But what really bothered me about that situation was [that] I had told myself that what we were doing in Iraq was keeping everyone alive. We kept U.S. soldiers alive, we kept Iraqis alive, we took apart every single bomb and it didn't matter who the target was — it didn't matter if it was going to blow up an Iraqi school or a U.S. convoy. You take them all apart. And in this situation, we were going to use our explosives to kill somebody instead of making Iraq just a little bit safer."

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