Marquette grad shares stories of war, personal aftermath in 'The Long Walk'
By Jim Higgins of the Journal Sentinel
On a good day in Iraq, Marquette University graduate Brian Castner disarmed roadside bombs. But other days, too many other days, he walked through the aftermath of car bomb explosions, picking his way around the body parts of soldiers, police officers and civilians, trying to determine what had blown them up.
The damage he experienced was not left behind in Balad and Kirkuk. In his new memoir "The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows," Castner describes both his work as an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal officer and his struggles when he returned to civilian life in the United States.
The title of his book comes from the phrase EOD specialists use to describe the encounter between a heavily padded technician and the unknown explosive device - an encounter that Castner calls the "last resort" of his profession:
"The Long Walk. Armor on, girded with breastplate and helm and leggings and collar. Eighty pounds of mailed Kevlar. No one can put on the bomb suit alone: Your brother has to dress you, overalls pulled up, massive jacket tucked, earnest in his careful thoroughness. One last check, face shield down, and then into the breach alone.
"There is no more direct confrontation of wills between bomber and EOD technician than the Long Walk. Donning the suit, leaving behind rifle and security, to outwit your opponent nose to nose. The lonely seeking of hidden danger. To ensure no more hazards lie in wait to snatch the next soldier to pass that way, the next EOD brother or sister, the next local shopkeeper or taxi driver or child playing in a garbage-laden sewer.
"No one takes the Long Walk lightly. Only after every other option is extinguished. Only after robots fail and recourses dwindle. The last choice. Always.
"But when the choice comes, when the knife's edge between folly and reason finally tips, training affords a decisiveness to guide your higher purpose. Castleman went so Keener didn't have to. So Mengershausen didn't have to. So I didn't have to. You take the Long Walk for your brother's wife, your brother's children, and their children, and the line unborn.
"No greater love does one brother have for another than to take the Long Walk."
But years of performing such dangerous work, and of living through the deaths of his EOD brothers, changed Castner. In his book, he personifies his torment as his Crazy, with a capital C:
"The Crazy feeling distracts from every action, poisons every moment of the day. It demands full attention. It bubbles, and boils, and rattles, and fills my chest with an overwhelming unknown swelling."
He battled his torment with running every day, sometimes twice a day, and with therapy at his local VA hospital. But sometimes it overwhelmed him.
Once, back home in Buffalo, he helped his son get dressed for a hockey game, carefully assisting with "each legging, each strap and buckle," with the puffy upper-body protector and insulated sleeves. By the time he helped his son put on the last piece, his goalie helmet, Castner was crying, because, he writes:
"I just put my seven-year-old son in a bomb suit and sent him on the Long Walk."
Castner grew up in Buffalo, where his parents taught at Canisius College, a Jesuit school like Marquette.
When he started at Marquette on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, he wanted to be either a writer and go into English, or an astrophysicist because "I wanted to be an astronaut." The Air Force led him to engineering, he said. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in electrical engineering.
'Blow up things for real'
In Saudi Arabia, where the Air Force had put him to work in disaster preparedness, he attended a briefing by the bomb squad, or EOD guys, who were explaining how to turn off "an old Soviet suitcase nuke." Castner was immediately fascinated.
"Now I knew when I wanted to be when I grew up," he writes in "The Long Walk," "and I would make the Air Force let me do it."
Castner said he was not an adrenaline junkie then, though he's become a bit of one since, developing a passion for white-water rafting. Rather, what appealed to him was the challenge, "the idea that it was really, really hard."
In EOD school, he progressed from the fundamentals of bombs, grenades and rockets to improvised explosive devices and "the culmination: nuclear weapons."
"I entered EOD school a skinny dumb kid who hoped he could hack it," he said. "I left a focused, dedicated, obsessive, invincible man, whose only purpose was to go to Iraq and blow things up for real."
He served in the Air Force from December 1999 to September 2007, with deployments in Balad in central Iraq in January 2005 and Kirkuk in northern Iraq in May 2006. The work and dangers he describes are harrowing.
"I don't think I wrote a happy book or a self-help book," he said.
But a consistent theme of his book is the intense brotherhood shared by the EOD technicians, and the grief he felt at the death of each one, whatever the cause: Ricky, Jeff, Kermit.
"I couldn't write the book and not include them," he said, "both because of their effect on me and (for) the tiny shred of immortality you grant someone when you put them in the book."
In his book's closing acknowledgments, Castner writes, "my thoughts have never left the EOD brothers we have lost since the war began. When I started writing, in the summer of 2010, that too-large number was eighty. It is currently one hundred and eleven."
When Castner left the Air Force, he became a civilian contractor who trained Army and Marine Corps units in bomb-disposal techniques. He still does a little training, primarily for the chance to reconnect with his brotherhood. He also attends the annual EOD Memorial Foundation weekends in Florida; each year, the names of military EOD technicians who gave their lives while performing their duties are inscribed on the memorial.
Castner wrote the final two chapters of his book in Whitefish Bay, while his wife, whom he met at Marquette, was finishing work for her PhD in nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. With running a key part of his mental health regimen now, he enjoyed running with a view of Lake Michigan: "It was like a mini-writer's retreat."
"Milwaukee is a lot like Buffalo, with a lot more people and a lot more stuff," Castner said. "I just loved my Marquette time."
His wife's work has also made it possible for him to focus on writing: He has a second nonfiction book under way.
When asked what the military might do to make the return to civilian life smoother for people like him, Castner paused to think, then replied, "I think that's a really legitimate question."
"The easy answer is there's always more to do," he said. While the military is very good at providing a level of training that takes over for you in the case of disaster, he said, "I don't know how you ease somebody back better."
"It took years (after leaving the service) before it really hit me," Castner said.