Invisible Wounds of War
The Long Walk
Brian Castner served three tours of duty in the Middle East, two of them as the commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq. Days and nights he and his team-his brothers-would venture forth in heavily armed convoys from their Forward Operating Base to engage in the nerve-racking yet strangely exhilarating work of either disarming the deadly improvised explosive devices that had been discovered, or picking up the pieces when the alert came too late. They relied on an army of remote-controlled cameras and robots, but if that technology failed, a technician would have to don the eighty-pound Kevlar suit, take the Long Walk up to the bomb, and disarm it by hand. This lethal game of cat and mouse was, and continues to be, the real war within America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But The Long Walk is not just about battle itself. It is also an unflinching portrayal of the toll war exacts on the men and women who are fighting it. When Castner returned home to his wife and family, he began a struggle with a no less insidious foe, an unshakable feeling of fear and confusion and survivor's guilt that he terms The Crazy. His thrilling, heartbreaking, stunningly honest book immerses the reader in two harrowing and simultaneous realities: the terror and excitement and camaraderie of combat, and the lonely battle against the enemy within-the haunting memories that will not fade, the survival instincts that will not switch off. After enduring what he has endured, can there ever again be such a thing as "normal"?
About the Author
Brian Castner served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in the US Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006. After leaving the active military, he became a consultant and contractor, training Army and Marine Corps units prior to their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing has appeared in a number of national and regional publications, including Publisher's Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Brian lives outside of Buffalo, New York with his wife and four sons. The Long Walk is his first book.
A message from Brian:
"I am honored that you have selected The Long Walk for Silicon Valley Reads 2013. The public response to my book has far exceeded my expectations, and I am humbled to have created something that fosters dialogue and touches an emotional nerve.
"I initially wrote The Long Walk for my children, four sons, now aged 14 to 3. I was not the father I could have been following my return from Iraq, and I needed to explain my experience - my post-war anxiety, my fears, my actions in combat that haunted me daily, my adrenaline-fueled need to run every day - to both myself and them. I needed to get down in writing, as best I could, what it feels like to come home from a war. I didn't expect a catharsis or cure, simply a record.
"Since publication, I have been inundated by emails, thank you's, well wishes, letters of concern, and readers at public events who feel compelled to come up to me and share their own experience. About a brother they never welcomed home from Vietnam. About a niece serving in Afghanistan now. About a boyfriend who tried to kill himself. About a son who succeeded. Initially, I was confused. I didn't write the book to be a spokesman or an advocate, I am promoting no agenda, and I am certainly no mental health professional. I'm just a guy who told a story, and an average story at that. But understanding and gratitude has quickly replaced confusion as I've come to relearn this basic truism: stories are how we humans make sense of this world.
"What higher compliment could an author receive than to know that their work helped someone else better understand their own struggles, or a husband, a neighbor, a cousin killed on his fourth tour?"
-- Brian Castner
"At times, The Long Walk...is almost unbearable to read. Not because the writing is bad - it's often excellent. It's unbearable because of Castner's brutally vivid descriptions of the war and the way it tore apart his mind and his life.... [T]his is an important book to read for anyone who wants to get some sense of the long-term human toll of the Iraq war. How many soldiers have been damaged as Castner has? How many lives and families have been destroyed - or will be - by the effects of TBI? The Long Walk brings home in a visceral way the hidden, personal burden of war that many veterans continue to carry."-The Boston Globe
"Vivid.... Castner's book intersperses stateside scenes of intense military training, off-hours hijinks and marital strife with vivid, often grisly accounts from Iraq's war-ravaged landscape, where his EOD teams disarmed improvised explosive devices, hunted for the bomb makers or cleaned up after their horrific handiwork while dodging gunfire and angry locals... [He writes] bluntly in describing how he has been changed by the war."-Wall Street Journal
"Not the typical testosterone-driven account that plagues the war-memoir genre.... [Castner] gives equal, if not more, weight to the time and effort that goes into readjusting to his family life, and his straightforward, unself-conscious writing paints an absorbing picture of war in the twenty-first century.... [This] memoir forces a reader to empathize with these unrelenting psychic and emotional pressures."-Chloe Fox, www.newyorker.com
"Although the stress and terror of war is tough, this memoir shows the return to civilian life presents the biggest, longest challenge.... Castner offers a brutally honest, sharply observed account of life at war.... [His] descriptions are written with a clarity that brings alive not just the stress, terror, and anxiety of disarming improvised explosive devices, but also the difficult stretches of boredom and loneliness, not to mention the glimmers of joy and brotherhood that go along with it. Even more compelling is Castner's account of just how hard it is to return to civilian life. Back in the U.S. with his wife and children, Castner struggles to keep at bay a host of troublesome emotions and reflexes-together denoted simply as "Crazy" in his telling. The Long Walk is both harrowing and poignant-an intensely personal story of what it takes not just to survive war, but also to fully leave behind the nightmare of combat and readapt to ordinary life."-The Daily Beast
"Forthright, unflinching.... What makes Castner's astonishing memoir so unique is his forthright, unflinching look at postwar life. To read this veteran's story is to realize that even after returning home, a veteran's hardest battles may still lie ahead."-David Tarrant, Dallas Morning News
"There are many memoirs of trauma-affected minds, and there are sure to be more coming as vets keep returning. Castner's is an opening salvo in a defensive war.... [He] maps out this new and sorrowful territory with the skill and focus of someone who has had to defuse a bomb inside his own body."-Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Brian Castner writes like a man on fire in a searing memoir about dismantling bombs in Iraq - and the permanent scars he's brought home.... Then and now, Brian Castner feels like a tightly coiled spring, ready to pop at any time. And his memoir...transmits this sensation with heartbreaking mastery. His book is so viscerally engaging that it's hard to read it without shaking. Castner writes with a keen mind, sharp intellect and literary flair. His powers of observation are extraordinary - just what you would expect of a man accustomed to scanning every little pile of roadway trash for evidence of a concealed bomb. At the same time, Castner writes with the desperate immediacy of a man whose skin has been burned away."-Brad Buchholz, Austin Statesman
"'The first thing you should know about me is that I'm Crazy.' So begins this affecting tale of a modern war and its home-front consequences.... Scarifying stuff...[that is] absolutely worth reading."-Kirkus Reviews
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (THE LONG WALK)
How does the structure of narrative serve to set the tone of the story? Do you think the non-chronological nature of the book reinforces the themes, or does it distract from them?Was Castner wrong to send his team to Baghdad to get the robots fixed without the permission of his commanding officer? Why or why not?Did you learn anything new about the types of missions conducted by US forces in Iraq? Did anything surprise you about them? Did you find any specific incident particularly disturbing, and why?There are a lot of children in THE LONG WALK, some Iraqi, and some the author's own. How does Castner's experience with one group inform the other?What does Castner learn from the Foot in the Box?In the end, what do you think caused the "Crazy feeling" in Castner? Is it unique to veterans, or are the lessons he learns applicable to a wider audience? Do you find the ending hopeful or unsettling?