Veteran reflects on Iraq deployments

Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, gave a lecture on Wednesday March 5 about his experiences working as an explosive ordinance disposal officer in Iraq and his struggle as a veteran when he returned to the United States. A Buffalo native, Castner told the story of his deployments to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. In the explosive ordinance disposal unit, he would have to respond to 50 calls reporting car bombs per month. Out of those, his unit might only arrive in time to dismantle one of those 50 bombs before they detonated.

Castner pointed to three days that caused him to go “crazy,” as he put it. On June 12, 2006, his team was called in to raid a factory that produced explosively formed penetrators.

“We grabbed everyone that lived in the area; we flex-cuffed them, put them in the hot sun, beat the crap out of them, checked around and we didn’t find anything,” Castner said.

The next day there were six car bombs within 15 minutes. The following morning one of his squad mates killed a man who seemed to be reaching for a bomb strapped around his chest, when in reality he was reaching for the Quran in his jacket pocket.

These three days profoundly affected Castner, but he didn’t realize it until four years after he returned from active duty.

Castner elaborated on the idea that he went crazy. He repeatedly used the word crazy, as he said he feels there is no better word to describe the physical and emotional feelings he suffers as a result of his deployments.

He said that crazy is a mix of “fear, anxiety, nervousness, stress and grief for dead friends. It was lots of feelings, but it was also physical. I thought I had a heart attack.”

Regarding whether the moment was instantaneous when these feelings hit him, Castner responded, “Literally, I can take you to the street corner in Portland, [Ore.] where I stepped and it exploded.”

The crazy, which as almost a separate character in his book, is what Castner struggles with even today.

Before finding writing as a therapeutic activity, Castner attempted several different techniques to combat these feelings. He attempted drinking alcohol, yoga, running and talk therapy but not medication, as he firmly believed that medication would not answer any of his problems.

Castner said he was plagued by existential questions such as the loss of faith in humanity, the loss of meaning in life and the perceived responsibility of not having saved people.

He added that many veterans must feel like they are “taking a bite of the apple from the tree of knowledge, and once you learn that stuff, you never unlearn it.”

Further on in his lecture, he moved away from discussing his own experience to discussing the plight of U.S. veterans. He began by stating that veterans in America have never been more isolated than today. Less than 1 percent of Americans are veterans, and for people ages 30 and younger, there is only a 33 percent chance that there is a veteran in their family. In Buffalo, only 0.15 percent of the population wears uniform, and of the military communities in the U.S., only one is a city.

Castner noted that the problem of isolation is exacerbated as a result of how the media and Hollywood portray veterans. Most stories today relate to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, the backlog of claims at the Department of Veteran Affairs or the veteran suicide rate. He admits that these are real problems, but these issues are not prevalent in a majority of veterans.

Castner’s lecture brought to light the status of veterans in the U.S. and what it is like to have an incurable disorder from serving one’s country.

Castner is currently working on a new nonfiction book about the people who make the homemade bombs that he worked to diffuse and how little we know about them.