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What it’s like to be a veteran of a war that never ends

May 26, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Sometimes author Brian Castner asks himself, “How many tours would have been enough to know, deep down in my bones, that I had done my part?” After three tours, Castner got home from Iraq a decade ago. But the war isn’t over; it’s just gone on without him. Castner gives his humble opinion on why being a veteran today feels like having unfinished business.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Tonight: reflections from author Brian Castner, who offers his Humble Opinion on why he felt most at home overseas fighting what he calls the forever war.

BRIAN CASTNER, Author, “The Long Walk”: It’s a little odd to be a veteran of a war that doesn’t end.

I did three tours, got home from Iraq a decade ago. You think you have moved on, put the war in its place, and then you see Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on cable news, and you’re reminded that your war isn’t over. It’s just gone on without you.

Some of us call it the forever war, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, bombing Libya and Yemen, raids all over Africa, and now Army Rangers and Marine Corps artillery in Syria. It’s already the longest war in American history, and I have given up thinking peace is coming any time soon.

Our nation has an all-volunteer military, and people join for lots of reasons: education, a sense of adventure, patriotism. But staying in the military, racking up five, six, seven tours, that’s a different kind of decision.

There are plenty of ways to pay for college that don’t involve getting shot at over and over again. So why did I do it? Why do soldiers choose to keep serving in the forever war?

I was an explosive ordnance disposal technician, EOD, we call it, the bomb squad. After my last Iraq tour, I was worn out mentally and physically. But my EOD brothers and sisters were dying, and I needed to stay to protect them.

Such a feeling provides intense meaning, but also, in the forever war, limitless obligation. Our little tribe has lost more than its share, disarming those infamous roadside bombs, and I found it harder to stop going back than to go the first time, because, at its core, EOD work is about lifesaving, not killing.

How do you say, I’m too tired, I can’t help anyone else? It’s a devil’s bargain, choosing between one’s tribe and one’s family. On the one hand, I needed to be in Iraq to keep my comrades alive. And, on the other, every moment I was gone, I wasn’t a good husband or dad.

Sometimes, I ask myself, how many tours would have been enough to know, deep in my bones, that I had done my part? This isn’t survivor’s guilt, or nostalgia for the adrenaline. That is just shallow, fades with youth.

It’s a haunting sense that I let my comrades down by giving up before the job was done. But that’s the paradox, right, because it feels like this business will never be finished.

For years, I maintained this fantasy that I would get a phone call from my old unit. We need you back, they’d say. I kept all my gear packed in a trunk in the basement, just in case.

I don’t want to go back to Iraq. But I also don’t want my brothers and sisters to go back without me. The end of the forever war can’t come soon enough.

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