Long Walk tells harrowing story of one soldier’s war experience

THE LONG WALK: A STORY OF WAR AND THE LIFE THAT FOLLOWS

By Brian Castner

Doubleday, $25.95.

“The food was bad. The terrain was desolate … . Everything about Iraq sucked. I loved it.” Brian Castner had dreamt of becoming an astronaut, but his eyesight did not meet NASA standards. He joined the Air Force as a civil engineer and received training in disaster preparedness. He was in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 11, 2001, and figured out that what he really wanted to do at that moment was to become an EOD guy — to learn Explosive Ordnance Disposal. To disarm bombs.

His raw, unyielding memoir, The Long Walk, is a gripping account of the dangerous mission he chose, and the wrenching reality of life after a 21st-century war. He suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of his proximity to countless blast waves; but the PTSD did not strike him until two years after he returned home. Lost memories, confusion over what to order for dinner, profound personality changes. It made him feel crazy. “The war is vivid,” he told his shrink. “It’s other things that I have forgotten.”

Lest the rest of us too conveniently forget the twists and turns of the tragic, wasteful Iraq War, Castner moves back and forth in the narration from war zone to postwar funerals and ongoing domestic crises. Without a shred of self-pity, he takes the reader into the desperate situations he and his men faced, before and after Iraq. “The man my wife married never came home … . If I didn’t die, I don’t know what else to call it.”

He trained hard. He mastered the weaponry. The American arsenal is impressive, of course, and for most encounters with improvised explosive devices there are robots at the ready. It got Castner through “the Day of Six VBIEDs” — vehicle-borne IEDs, car bombs. But sometimes robots didn’t do the job, and to protect the next U.S. convoy it was necessary to get into 80 pounds of Kevlar and take “the long walk” to find a bomb under a pile of garbage.

Frustration, confusion, decision. You blow stuff up when the signs suggest there’s a bomb hidden. What he thought would be the biggest raid of all led to a cache of rusty truck engine parts.

West of Baghdad, at a meeting with fellow EOD commanders, the longest-serving chief among them reminded all of the folly in believing that they were making a difference any more than drug enforcement agents were shutting down illegal traffic in the U.S. “IEDs are dope,” said the chief. “You think you’re saving the day clearing out that IED? You’re just snatchin’ the user.”

Back home, even the sound of a diesel engine could freak him out. In Vietnam it was the thousand yard stare. Castner says the vocabulary of the Civil War captures the feeling best: “Soldier’s Heart,” marked by “palpitations, mental distraction, and a reduction in physical endurance and lust for life.”

“The thing is,” he writes, “when you think you’re Crazy, you don’t always know that Crazy is the problem. Or that Crazy is what you should call it.” Whatever it is, the pain is deftly reproduced in these fast-turning pages. The author doesn’t write like a crazy man, and one suspects it is due to the discipline required in putting it all on the page with total candor, and in confronting experiences that nature never prepared any human being to undergo. He comes across as a keen, self-conscious observer, lucky to have survived. In 2006, with two Iraq tours behind him, Brian Castner received the Bronze Star.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.