I was of two minds when I read this book - there were times when I didn't like it, when I was like "gad, another, 'I'm crazy' memoir from the war," but I was equally impressed with author Brian Castner's raw, and earned, emotion. He does not back off the details, or take the easy way around any of his stories. There's a lot of pain here, and he gives it to the reader in full measure.
It's got its flaws. I appreciate his difficulties in re-acclimating to the US, after his tour as an officer in charge of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. But as a reader, I did not need Castner's constant "I'm Crazy" with a capital C to make his point. I got his point without that, and it felt overboard at times.
But - Castner's not a 'school-trained' writer or memoirist. What might be melodramatic from a writer with a creative writing degree began to seem, as I read, more honest and forthright from Castner - because maybe he doesn't know how else to say it, except with "Crazy" with a capital C. Is there some literary metaphor that would do as good a job? Maybe not.
Castner's description of the EOD job itself is excellent. This is a real-life 'Hurt Locker,' minus the phony dramatics. On the ground, it's simply a grinding, dangerous job. This made me appreciate the training and attention to detail that the job obviously requires.
He does an outstanding job defining and explaining Traumatic Brain Injury, and why it's a more common injury than I had previously considered.
There are a few times when I think he took dramatic license a bit too far (he mentions unloading a chambered pistol round in a colonel's office - maybe it happened, but I've never heard of loaded weapons being carried inside a headquarters). Again, I think he wrote an account so raw that his 'belief' took over, rather than an absolute truthful recollection. So it's honest, even if it's not always factual, but there are no big details that struck me as untrue.
Part of me is not such a fan of these kinds of post-war memoirs. As news accounts constantly report on soldiers on disability or facing PTSD, these types of stories serve to further confirm the idea that ALL soldiers are "Crazy." That's obviously not true. As full of pain as Castner's story is, it's worth noting he wrote a book - he's not hiding underneath his covers. That's true of the vast majority of soldiers, but I wonder if these memoirs generate more pity than empathy - I'm not sure, but I think about it.
But, no doubt this is the kind of book a civilian audience should absolutely read. Even if it is pity toward the soldiers that a reader ends up feeling, that's at least something, which is a lot better than ignorance or lack of understanding at all.
I certainly did not 'pity' him, and I definitley don't think he wants that from any reader. He wants you to understand how hard it is, and how much work it takes to return to some form of normalcy, even months/years after he's back home. Castner and I do have some small common ground that purely civilian readers would lack, so my perception is going to be a little different.
I've embedded in Iraq several times as a photojournalist, and I'm an Army veteran of Desert Storm myself. Since everything in Iraq has some bitter connection, I discovered two of the EOD technicians he mentions in the book were killed the same day I arrived to Iraq in 2007, and not far away from where I was.
About a week later, men from that same EOD detachment came up to my area to dispose of an IED discovered on a road; the soldiers I was with were angry about how extra, extra careful the EOD men were - making the soldiers conduct a lengthy on-foot check for hidden wires before rolling their huge armored truck up to the explosive. That caution was because of the trap that Castner describes, that the previous EOD team had been lured to park their truck directly above a huge buried explosive.
At the time, the soldiers were bitter that they had to dangerously do on foot what the EOD guys could have done from their truck. They didn't care about what happened - only about what was happening.
It all worked out - they blew up the discovered IED and nobody was hurt and they all went on their way. But there was no happy ending. Everybody just ended the day a little more disgusted than they were the day before. That was Iraq, and Castner lived through it for a year, and it wasn't good.
The author is a former American soldier who served three terms of duty in the Middle East. That seems enough to leave him crazy but his role in the elite team that disarmed explosive devices impacted him forever in a number of ways. His job was one that required nerves of steel and a willingness to expose himself to constant danger and tension. He saw the results of the specific kinds of horrors of this war up close and personal, trapped in his uncomfortable body armor and participating in death and destruction. He and the elite members of his bomb squad wore uncomfortable protective gear but sometimes they had to just walk up to a bomb and disarm it and sometimes they were blown to pieces. Not only was the tension constant, but other aspects of their experience, such as traveling in uncomfortable small planes for hours and being exposed to heat and cold and nausea were part of the deal.
The author is brutally honest in his descriptions of the job itself, his fellow soldiers, the expensive high-tech weapons and the horror of watching victims of explosions having their remains blown over the landscape. Much of this is hard to read.
And then, later, after his discharge, the nightmares and craziness started, impacting is life with his wife and four children and making his civilian world a horrible nightmare. It took years of trauma and therapy for him to be able to write this book and it was these long-lasting effects that horrified me even more than the lurid descriptions of the actual bomb blasts.
I learned more in this book than I ever wanted to know about the war in the Middle East told from this author's personal point of view. I identified with his willingness to serve his country as well as his later problems in adjusting to the civilian world. I also applaud his courage for writing his book and sharing it with the world.
The Long Walk is a train of consciousness memoir written from memory by Brian Castner following his multiple deployments in Iraq and final training of new Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) volunteers prior to their deployment. It expresses extremely well the mental trauma that follows our combat veterans home; but no one who hasn't experienced it can truly understand the intensity of that trauma.
He expresses to his wife Jesse how he writes this with no souvenirs, no research documents, and no notes: "I don't try to remember. I don't need to. I am surrounded by reminders; the images simply emerge in the front of my thoughts." There is a very poignant segment where he describes carefully dressing his son before a hockey game. It reminds him of dressing an EOD brother for the Long Walk - to personally attempt to disarm an explosive device. As his son heads for the ice, Brian's memories hit him hard - "I have just sent my seven year old son on the Long Walk."
Brian Castner's technique really pulls the reader into his story. Brian's memories jump back and forth between today's activities safely at home and his experiences in Iraq; so does his book. Just as these memories impact his life without warning, this story impacts the reader's perception of the frustration - even horror - of living with these memories superimposed over the mundane tasks of civilian living.
Amazon asks reviewers to indicate how much they like the book being reviewed. I cannot say "I love it!" about this book - how can I like or love what happened to Brian Castner or any other combat veteran? But I must give it five stars! It will stay with me a long time. This memoir will help me to understand that none of our husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, or fathers return from the obscene violence of war the same.
Brian Castner is a gifted writer and clearly a very intelligent guy. IN a minimum of words he can get across a whole scene, the personalities of the major players and the emotional tone of the situation, usually with a mildly bitter, sardonic twist that makes his writing very engaging and sympathetic. I found myself liking Brian Castner in the book even though I'm pretty sure I wouldn't much like the real Brian Castner.
Castner recounts, in fast-paced snippets, his time in the service, starting with his time at "EOD School" [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] and continuing through his third and final deployment in Kirkuk, Iraq. The story is told in more-or-less chronological order, alternating with snippets from his life as a civilian, particularly his life since he became "Crazy". There is a controlled chaotic feel to the book (which I'm sure reflects the way Castner's mind works). Sections often start an event or bit of information out of the blue that makes little sense. It takes a bit of diving in and wading through the story(ies) that follow to connect the opening and make sense of the larger point. Many details feel a bit off - exaggerated, mashed together with other details, just don't ring quite true - and we sense that we're not reading objective "truth" but rather the "truth" of Brian Castner's experience of the madness which is Iraq.
The book appears to be largely Castner's cathartic and therapeutic attempt to understand, cope with, and, ideally, get over his "Crazy". This "Crazy" came upon him a while after his return to civilian life - months after the more usual symptoms of PTSD had gone away. It came upon him suddenly - he stepped off the curb normal and landed Crazy. He compares it to the feeling of a young boy being stuck inside on the last day of school taking a test when he's itching and burning to go outside and run and play. Except that for Castner the burning doesn't go away with the release of the end of the test and going outside. No matter how much he runs, he can't burn it off. He can only drown it out with the pain of a hard run, his running buddy Ricky always urging him on, "Don't be scared of the soft sand." (How it is that Ricky can run with him every day when they don't live near each other and Castner is always traveling is itself a bit of a puzzler at first.) Is it a different form of PTSD? A manifestation of traumatic brain injury? Or perhaps Castner's own diagnosis, "Soldier's Heart".
To explain (or attempt to explain) the Crazy, Castner relates may of the most salient incidents from his deployments - from the life-threatening to the ludicrous to the heart-warming. He relates how so many of his Brothers (fellow EOD officers) met their end in sudden and gruesome ways, often right next to him. He relates stories of the fear and rage and confusion involved in dealing with Iraqi civilians whom he can't understand (either linguistically or culturally). He details the process and results of disarming IEDs and car bombs, or investigating the aftermath of those that weren't discovered in time. Such accounts are horrific and gruesome, but Castner makes them palatable with deft gallows humor which will leave you questioning your own sanity and morality as you laugh along with him. "The foot was in the box." Get it? Well, read the book and you will. Often in war laughing and crying are your only two choices.
I think one of the things that made the book engaging for me (in spite of myself) is that Castner doesn't portray himself as a victim. Quite the opposite, in fact; he was a willing, even eager, participant. He relates how, when he learned of EOD School, it was all he wanted to do and how, during school it was what he ate, breathed and thought all day. It was what he lived for, what he was born to do. It's the sense of living on the edge, staring danger in the face and coming back again for another helping. Life is simple - destroy your enemies, protect your friends; black-white. In fact, Castner seems to recognize that at least part of his Crazy comes from being away from this highly-charged, exciting, binary life - his Crazy signals approval when he considers the possibility of deploying again.
As a civilian, Castner does not exactly portray himself as the most decent kind of guy. His idea or "real living" seems to be strip clubs and lots of booze. He admits he's often not a very attentive husband or father to his four sons - in fact, his wife at one point begs him to cheat so she can divorce him honorably. Castner is almost an archetype of the Soldier - the perfect type of man to send to Iraq. A fierce, hard-driving man who lives for the challenges, danger and adrenalin, a man who is adverse to the more mundane, but muddier details of commitment and family life.
This book made me rethink my position on war just a bit. In general, I am very anti-war. But looking at the world from Castner's point of view, I can almost see war as a necessity - a way for brilliant, fit, driven and aggressive guys like Castner to exploit their gifts to the fullest in daily head-to-head confrontations which require extreme stamina and quick thinking. If it weren't for the horrific impact on civilians of war - the friends and loved ones left behind, as well as those in the war zone - I guess I'd say, have at and may the best man win. In this light, I'm not sure that Castner is suffering from PTSD. If home is where the heart is, then Castner's heart is in the war, and he is suffering from homesickness.
on July 14, 2012
Castner's writing conveys, through style and content, how all-consuming his job in Iraq was -- the hyper vigilance, the constant assessment of danger, the need to kill -- and how he finds it impossible to disengage from that life and reenter his family life. Reentry is difficult, under any circumstances, and it is hard to determine if the trauma is physical, psychological or both. The solution to this issue is complicated by the constantly evolving methods of war that introduce new physical and emotional trauma. Castner relates his experiences in Iraq and his struggles at home in the context of trying to find a diagnosis and treatment for his own personal Crazy.
His description of life both inside and beyond the wire is vivid and disturbing. The "Long Walk" is the walk that an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialist takes to a live round or bomb to defuse it. The long walk is also Castner's current life. For him, the loss of EOD Brothers continues, and the terror of the war doesn't end when you step onto U.S. soil. Probably the most frightening images for me in this book are the thoughts that run through the author's mind as he drives his son to day care and watches over him at night.
During the writing of the book, Castner's wife asked him how he could remember all the details. He says he cannot forget them. The narrative keeps returning to Iraq or to his battle with the Crazy, sometimes suddenly in the middle of another story. While disconcerting at first, you soon realize this is what Castner's life must be like - an inability to focus on the here and now when your mind keeps going back to Iraq.
Castner is a talented writer, and this was an emotional read that I won't soon forget.
And with a first sentence of a book of past and active memoirs Brian Castner has his reader by the ear, the eye, and every sensory receptor of the body. This is one of those books that burn like acid on the skin causing pain at first and as it gradually heals it leaves a scar - a mark, a blight, an indelible reminder of the original episode. Many soldiers have written about their experiences in battle - from the greats such as alt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, WG Sebald to Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Neil Sheehan among others. Writing of this caliber, especially in the hands of a new practitioner, deserves admiration for not only his technical skills, but also for the unique manner in which this book was written. This is one of the most involving books about the active and passive aspects of the wars in the Middle East now available.
Here is a story, a true reportage, of a soldier who served multiple terms of duty in the Middle East this past decade, being a commander of an Explosive Ordnance disposal unit in Iraq - a military Bomb Squad. The assignments carried out by Castner and his fellow soldiers were based on seeking hidden explosive devices and upon finding them, undergoing the dangerous task of disarming them. Yes, we have `been there visually' in the film `The Hurt Locker', but fine as that story was it dims in light of the way Castner relates those terrifying yet thrilling missions.
Where Castner's THE LONG WALK (a term for the breathless approaching a potentially deadly explosive device) succeeds best is in transferring the madness and the gore of battle as it imprints on the brains and psyches of those men assigned to these tasks. By keeping his story personal, written on his own without a dependency on statistics or data, brings entry into the world as it has changed by the Crazy One - the fragile alternative mindset of a hyperactive victim of negative imprints that alter his return to civilian life. In a few paragraphs he takes us to the field of action, then leaves a space, and moves directly into the realities of being back home in the states. It is this back and forth method of writing that unveils the fragility (and the indomitability) of the mind as experienced by war, making it immediately accessible to the reader - and as pungent as any war writing to date.
The book is about a specific war (and everyone should have access to the pages of this book to see how agonizingly absurd the continued pointless and useless and wasteful Middle East involvement in tribal warfare really is): in reality this book mirrors the permanent injuries on soldiers' minds in every war. This is powerful writing, important information, a gateway to understanding PTSD, and above all one of the most terrifying and heart wrenching stories about the absurdity of war and its aftershocks. Grady Harp, September 12
on July 10, 2012
I've long wondered what it's been like for our current service people. Like many Westerners I have very little idea what life, not to mention war, is like in the Middle East. It's worse than I thought. Castner's account is straight forward and unblinkingly honest. He was a bomb expert during his tour. He describes the arduous training prior to going to Kirkuk Iraq and how competitive it is. I was lost even with this concept. Who the heck is so driven that they WANT to go to such a dangerous place and risk their life by disabling illusive but deadly IED's? Apparently there are more than a few brave people who consider this a privilege. These bombs can and do cause horrible damage. Castner and his fellow soldiers would come up to horrific scenes of bodies in pieces and loved ones wailing. Add to that they were often viewed with hostility by the locals, not as rescuers.
Castner pivots between such scenes in Iraq and his attempt to fit back in to civilian life. One passage that particularly tore my heart was his telling of how his wife went to her grandmother prior to Brian's leaving and asked her how she had dealt with being without her husband when he was serving in World War II. Her grandmother told her to say goodbye to the man she knew because he wouldn't be coming home even if he didn't die in war a different man would return to her. This is confirmed when Castner's wife tells him he hasn't laughed for a year after returning home.
The bond between soldiers is necessarily strong. They have to rely on their squadron to preserve one another's lives. Of course there were service deaths Castner had to deal with. When he returned he was once tapped to serve as a Family Liaison Officer, the person who informed the family of their lost loved one, he was the soldier who stayed with them during the memorials and funerals. Although he hadn't known this soldier in life he was struck by the family's fortitude in getting through a devastating time.
Castner describes in personal detail his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More importantly he walks us through Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with which I was far less familiar. TBI occurs when the brain sustains injury by loud noises or slamming against the brain pan. Since the bomb squad were perpetually around explosions they were exposed to this over and over. It can produce, among other symptoms, Parkinson like shakes, gaps in memory, the inability to form new memories, etc. He also discusses some of the mitigating exercises such as yoga that health professionals are working with.
Though this was a serious account it also has hope. Castner obviously takes pride in the work he did in the Middle East as well as providing training for the next group of soldiers who will work with explosives. He describes the process of reconnecting with loved ones and dealing with his injuries, of staying in touch with others who've served. Soldier's Heart was a term coined during the Civil War. It's a more poetic description for what we now call PTSD.
This review was based on a e-galley provided by the publisher.
on December 17, 2012
This book is a mixed bag, both in style and in value. This book is about the story of an Air Force EOD officer in Iraq. He served part of his time in Kirkuk, where I was. I did get some insight to some of the events I too observed.
He doesn't go into a long cite of his experiences. He hops around a lot. The author takes the reader through some of his experiences in Iraq. Then he jumps over to his trials at home. Any reader will get some rare glimpses into the EOD/bomb squad. His descriptions of response is excellent. You will get a feel of being in the front seat with him on response. The other gem is his descriptions of his troubles with PTSD. Those clips are very descriptive. All to often you hear PTSD and everyone thinks crazy. Here you get a real sense of what it is like to suffer from that. Few other books will give the reader that. The style of writing is an acquired taste. The author jumps around quite a bit in the writing, from war to trouble at home. To me that makes his story hard to follow. It takes away from the importance of his story. A chronological telling of the story would have made the PTSD stories seem more important because you would know better how he got there.
..."The Long Walk" is a must read if you hope to understand the American military experience in 21st century combat.
Brian Castner was a US Air Force company grade officer whose 8-year career took him from the relative safety of civil engineering and disaster preparedness to the extraordinarily stressful environments of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units during two tours in Iraq. "The Long Walk" in this title refers to the EOD technique of last resort, when a a person climbs into a bomb suit (you've seen this in the well-intentioned but utterly unrealistic depiction of EOD technicians in "Hurt Locker").
This is a raw story that includes a rather alarming self-diagnosis by Castner in the opening sentence. Castner shifts rapidly between the "here and now" and the "there and then" as he describes his experiences in training, in combat and in his re-entry to civilian life after he leaves the Air Force. Sometimes his use of these techniques is heavy-handed, and probably could have benefited from a stronger influence of an editor.
This is a minor issue in an otherwise stellar first-person wartime narrative. He totally nails important parts of military culture that leave everybody with different views of the same war. His experiences outside the wire in central and northern Iraq were different from the experiences of those who stayed inside the FOB, and their experiences were different still from those who served in the relative safety of Qatar. Yet never does he condescend to those with less intense roles; it's clear he appreciates that everybody has a job to do. In his first combat deployment he is relieved of command for taking actions not approved by a general officer. While there are two sides to every story, I sensed no pulling of punches in his account, and applaud him for the actions he took based on the fundamental principal that it was the right thing to do for his mission. Surprisingly in the current "zero defect" military environment, he later gets another command and leads again in combat.
This book is marked by tight, unembellished prose that sums up the demands of his profession:
--"A passing test on every test in EOD school is 85%. Many questions are worth 16 points."
--"Three months before my first real combat tour we began serious deployment work-ups, leaving home to conduct raining we couldn't do at our small base [including] a combat shooting course...where we moved and fired our weapons in ways that never would have been allowed by the safety-soaked and risk-averse larger Air Force." Anybody who has ever worn a reflective belt on an Air Force base will instantly understand this!
--"As American and British divisions raced over the Kuwaiti border...on the way to Baghdad and beyond...they discovered unguarded and open ammunition bunkers, huge complexes of high explosive artillery rounds, aircraft bombs, mines,and guided missiles. ...we left them as we found them. By the end of the year, those ammunition bunkers were empty, stripped clean by Iraqi militants and redistributed for us to dispose of, one by one, hidden by the side of the road."
Similarly, he pulls no punches in what is clearly a difficult relationship with his wife as his combat experience takes primacy over his psyche. He addresses this, and his encounters with VA examiners of his physical and emotional conditions. Late in the book, Castner describes helping his son into goalie equipment before a hockey game. This pulls him back into a time when another charge of his was climbing into a bomb suit in Iraq. This may be one of the most elegant descriptions ever of what those who have been to war since 2001 face back home.
This is a gritty, artful true story. It spares nothing in addressing his own issues before, during and after combat. You should be prepared for frank discussions of what happens to human victims in the wake of improvised explosive devices.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you are a hawk or a dove: everybody with an opinion of their own about war should read this book. You'll gain insight into the impact bombs have on people long after they are beyond the blast zone.
on August 10, 2012
Although I do not think it was the author's intention, my feelings about war have drastically changed after reading this book. Given the stories he tells, how can any soldier not have PTSD or some other kind of mental health problem related to his or her war experiences? I was touched by the author's vulnerability in describing some raw emotions and the Crazy. This book was intense but I am so glad I read it.