The decorated military veteran and author of The Long Walk reflects on how his thought processes have changed as a result of his battlefield experiences in Iraq.
War vet-writer Brian Castner
Tavis Smiley: Ron Castner served three tours of duty as an Air Force officer in the Middle East, twice leading an explosive ordnance disposal unit in Iraq and also earning a Bronze Star.
His much talked about new book details his experiences and the plight of others after time in a war. The text is called “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows”. Brian, good to have you on this program.
Brian Castner: Thank you so much.
Tavis: I want to jump right in. I want to start with the very first words you write in this book. I want to start there because I’ve rarely read anything that is this arresting from the first sentence, so I want to read just a few paragraphs here.
“The first thing you should know about me is that I’m crazy. I haven’t always been until that one day, the day I went crazy. I was fine or I thought I was, not anymore. My crazy is a feeling. It’s the worst, most intolerable feeling I’ve ever had and it never goes away. The second thing you should know about me is that I don’t know how to fix it or control it or endure from one moment to the next. The crazy is winning, so I run.”
Castner: That’s right.
Castner: You know, I must have rewritten the start of that book a thousand times and I realized that feeling crazy all the time was the most important thing that was happening to me. By important, I mean it’s all I thought about all day, no matter what else I did, making dinner or driving the kids around or doing my other job or whatever the case may be.
All I actually thought about was feeling crazy. I mean, how else to start the book? You put the most important stuff right at the very top.
Tavis: That’s pretty honest, though. That’s pretty transparent, pretty authentic.
Castner: I didn’t know how else to be and why else write a book unless you’re gonna put everything in there. I wanted it to be a record of how I felt and just honestly how it was and then whatever came out in the wash afterwards, I guess. Let the chips fall where they may.
Tavis: When you say crazy, how are you defining that? Because I know from just the few moments we’ve spent together that you did not write this book to be pitied.
Tavis: So when you say crazy, unpack that for me.
Castner: I used that word for a lot of reasons. I had something happening to me and, like I said, it was a feeling. It wasn’t nausea and it wasn’t stress and it wasn’t worry and it wasn’t a pain in my knee. It wasn’t anything that I had a name for medically.
I had this feeling in my chest that was swelling and expanding and really the fact that it never went away was the worst part of it. I couldn’t do anything. It’s not like you pop a pill and something happens. So I needed a name and crazy worked because when we did every medical test, I thought I had a heart attack, I made them check my heart and do a stress test and everything else. There was nothing wrong with me, but I still felt it, so it must have been all in my head. So crazy worked.
I think the other part of it is there’s this stereotype of the crazy veteran that’s always jumping at loud noises and can’t move past whatever his war experience was, Vietnam or Afghanistan or wherever the case may be. I felt like I was turning into that stereotype or I felt like I was turning into that parody, which is nothing that any individual veteran wants to be, but it’s how it felt. I felt like I was doing all of those things, so the word stuck.
Tavis: Without a pill, to your earlier point, without a pill or something else that some physician could prescribe to you to make all this go away, how do you fight something you don’t what it is? How do you get beyond it?
Castner: I tried everything. I would have done almost anything to make the feeling go away. So while there were still medical tests, I did those. But when we ran out of those, I’m lucky that my last appointment in the VA hospital was not something physical. It was the counselor’s office. I just went to that appointment because it was an appointment on my to-do list and, instead of having some sort of test, you know, we started talking.
But I tried running, I tried yoga, I tried all sorts of things to make it go away and it was months. Some of it’s never really away. Some of it comes back, you know. It’s taken me a long time to figure it out and kind of put it in its place.
Tavis: When you suggested earlier that, in your case, so much of this was happening inside your head, it wasn’t a pain, it wasn’t some acute illness, it was inside your head, how much of that – this is an unfair question to ask because I don’t want to put you in terms of a position of having to diagnose every vet – but talk to me about the notion that so much of what you all deal with when you come home is in your head versus fill in the blank.
Castner: Versus some physical thing? I mean, some guys lose arms and legs and some guys have some sort of like specific physical injury. I do hesitate to speak for anybody other than myself, you know, and this is a book about what my experience was, but I have gotten a lot of feedback from guys – and this is what’s really touching – who have said, “Thank you for writing it down. I feel the same way and you just made it okay to say so.” They were just uncomfortable, you know, giving voice to it or they were uncomfortable saying it out loud.
So I think there’s a lot going on with what I call the crazies. Some of it is grief of lost friends, some of it just the horrors of what you see and what you’ve done. Some of it is the realization of what you were willing to do or what you were willing to do to get home or to shoot your way out of a situation or whatever the case may be.
You know, a lot of the mission when you leave the base over there is “I’m going to get home one way or the other and so are all these guys that I love, that I’m serving with and we’re all going get back and we’re all going to do whatever we need to do for the next three hours to get back.”
Once you start processing some of that or all those skills that you just learned, you then use in daily life, when you start to think that way about your kids and you think that way about your friends and you think that way driving down the highway and you think that way taking them to school or whatever the case may be, it’s realizing that your brain still thinks about all those things in that order, but you’re not in that situation anymore.
Dealing with that, I guess, realizing the kind of person that you’ve become or what your training has put you in preparation to do, you know, for example, in the book, I talk about sometimes when I’m in airports and I start to feel trapped a little bit. I find the exit and I think about how am I gonna get to the exit and who do I need to kill between me and the exit to get there.
It’s the planning; it’s really the planning that bothered me, the fact that this is how I think now. Normal people don’t think that way, but this is how I think now and kind of dealing with that.
Tavis: One, I’d never want to be between you and an airport exit door [laugh], number one.
Castner: [Laugh] right.
Tavis: But secondly, all jokes aside, I can understand how when you’re in the heat of battle, your thought, first and foremost, is I am going to do whatever it takes to get back home.
Tavis: I got to get back home at some point and see my wife and my kids, my mom, my dad, my family, my friends. I get that as a survival tactic. I got to do what I got to do to get home. The flip side of that, though, is that it could lead to you making some strange, unethical, crazy choices if that’s what drives your decision-making skills. Tell me more.
Castner: It’s not the doing, it’s the planning. So it’s not like I ever got to the point of truly carrying out any of the plans. It’s not like I had set it up so that way I could, you know, actually shoot my way out of the airport or something. So like I said, it’s the planning factor. It’s the idea that I’m making plans other people don’t. I’m thinking in ways other people don’t.
You bring up the ethics of it. I don’t wish any particular person harm. It’s not about any individual. It’s not even about any of the people that are in the airport at that time. It’s falling back on survival skills when something feels a little different or in just stuff that you encounter in daily life.
What I’m thinking of is being a father. Fathers are very protective naturally. I can’t really parse out what part of some of my feelings are in being a protective father, but I probably take it to the next step…
Tavis: Go ahead.
Castner: I take it to the next step of, you know, when I had a newborn baby who was just a couple of days old and fresh home from the hospital, I just had seen so many dead children in Iraq that I could imagine these things happening to my child.
I couldn’t just imagine the unimaginable. I had specific pictures in my head of what it looked like. I could picture every last bit of it and you’re gonna do anything you can to keep that from happening to your child.
Tavis: To those pictures that you had swirling in your head, I want to leave the airport and literally – at least mentally – transport back to the battlefield. So let’s leave the airport for the moment.
What I’m curious about is what it does to your decision-making, how it challenges your character, whether or not you find yourself in emotional or spiritual conflict when your guiding principle is “I will do anything to get home”? You see my question?
Castner: Oh, there’s definitely a spiritual conflict and a character conflict because you know what the rules are and you know what you should do. But this is one of those things I learned in wartime that I don’t think anybody can teach you.
I learned growing up Catholic in Catholic Buffalo that I had a conscience and my conscience was given to me by God so, that way, I would know the right thing to do in any particular situation. Then if I chose to break that, well, then that was my choice.
But it also was pretty clear that your conscience applied to things like stealing candy from the store, like all these little things, right? It didn’t apply to shooting somebody because only truly depraved murderers or sinners would contemplate doing something like that.
What I learned in Iraq and Kirkuk is that I thought I had a gag reflex that would keep me from taking that next step and I realized I simply didn’t have one. Maybe it’s the wartime situation that somebody is shooting at you and the roles are different.
Tavis: Context makes a difference.
Castner: It does, and suddenly right. Although things that you thought were unimaginable, you’re now in a position not just to contemplate them, but actually carry them out. You have a rifle that’s there to keep you safe for when you’re starting to get shot at. And the things that you never thought you could do, you’re planning on doing every single day.
Tavis: You talk in the book in such moving terms about your responsibility to send out the teams to check out what were believed to be, you know, IEDs or other explosive devices. I’ll let you tell more about that, but what I’m really getting to here – again, I will give you the space to roam here intellectually.
What’s the pressure like when you’re the guy making decisions about sending men and women into harm’s way and you don’t know literally if in five minutes they’re gonna make it back or not?
Castner: I think it’s tough getting shot at. It’s tough being the one taking apart the IED. But the kind of people that my job attracted, explosive ordnance disposal, the bomb squad work that we did, it attracts a lot of doers, it attracts a lot of Type A personalities. We’re all the person that wants the football at the end of the game.
So to not have that and to know that it’s somebody else’s job – being in command of the unit and having ten teams work for me, it’s not my job to go on every call. It’s their job to do the work and you’re overall leading and getting them what they need so that way they can complete their mission.
But everybody is so mission-focused, you just don’t have room to contemplate the idea of – I don’t know. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking, well, I hope they make it back. We all had a job to do. We all knew what the risks were. I was certainly happy to see them come back every time.
I mean, I would hold my breath when I was actually on-scene and actually could watch somebody putting on the bomb suit and going downrange. You know, I wouldn’t breathe until they got back. But sending them out, we were doing 25 missions a day. You just can’t sit there and bite your nails with 25 missions a day.
Tavis: You talk about, again, in stark reality – that’s how it comes across, at least, very stark – but you talk about the day that – I’m trying to remember now – the five or six explosions like in 15 minutes?
Castner: We called it the Day of Six VBEDS.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s what it was.
Castner: A VBED is a Vehicle Borne IED, so it’s a car bomb. Five of them went off and one of them didn’t. In that case, the Kurdish militia shot the driver. They had kind of figured out what was going on with all these car bombs going off. So we made it to that one, so we had a dead suicide bomber in the front seat.
That was really the only car bomb that we were able to take apart on my tour. After that, we had two car bombs a day every afternoon for months and they all went off. So a lot of what I wasn’t prepared for or a lot of maybe what the average person doesn’t know is that taking apart the IEDs is what you’re hoped to be doing.
What you really spend a lot of our time doing is going to the scene of a device that’s already gone off and then picking up the pieces, figuring out how it worked, doing all those forensic type of tasks and finding fingerprints and little pieces of evidence and all of that.
Tavis: You say picking up the pieces – again, back to the book – when you say picking up the pieces, some of those pieces are feet…
Castner: It all gets mixed together. When the bomb goes off, you’re going to have – it’s going to be wet everywhere and some of that’s gasoline and some of it’s brake fluid and some of it is people. You’re picking through all of that to find that little whatever it was, the little bit of cell phone that told you, okay, it was the cell phone that made this go off.
Tavis: It’s pretty clear in the book how you came to terms and, put another way, how you’re still coming to terms with the enemy that you faced when you were deployed. I’m curious, though, as to how you would describe how you came to terms with the humanity of the folk that you came in contact with.
Castner: Right. It’s interesting because actually I bear none of them any ill will at all, in fact, including the people shooting at us. There’s the shorthand in the military or in the country or whatever else where we refer to the good guys and the bad guys. That never felt exactly right, you know. If there were foreign troops in New York, we’d probably be shooting at them.
So one hand, you realize that there’s just a lot of people trying to get to work every day. They’re trying to raise their families. Maybe they’re a farmer and the crop was bad this year and, if somebody’s gonna pay me $10 to put this bag on the side of the road and not ask any questions, well, then that’s what I need to do to raise my family. I’m a father and I understand these things.
So on one hand, what everybody in that country and that city were doing every day made perfect sense. On the other hand, if they’re shooting at me, well, I’m gonna shoot back. And if they’re trying to kill me, then what am I doing?
The first time somebody truly tries to kill you is an, I don’t know, an eye-opening experience. I was expecting to be scared and to be afraid. I was not expecting to get mad and that’s really what happened, like who are you to be killing me? Don’t you realize this is me we’re talking about [laugh]? Of course, that’s the same with everybody, right?
You know, in a war, you don’t kill individual, you know, pop-up targets. You kill brothers and fathers and mothers and daughters and that’s how the game works.
Tavis: And to your point now, that’s where I wanted to go with this question about humanity. I got my own views on this, but I get that if somebody is shooting at you, you got to respond. I get that, but you’re killing somebody’s mother and somebody’s brother and somebody’s sister and, oftentimes, they end up being the collateral damage.
They end up being – you know, your job is to try to limit that kind of what they call collateral damage. Did you get any time to get to know the Iraqi people, not the ones who were shooting at you?
Castner: It’s one of my big regrets that I hardly did at all. We were in this little bubble and we would work with Iraqi police and Iraqi army on the scene and we would ask questions of witnesses, but it’s not like we walked around and had tea and just sat down and actually got to know the people.
Partly that’s a reflection of when I was there because I was there in 2005 and 2006 before the surge, before a lot of the change in strategy because the surge was as much about us changing how we did business as putting more people there. It was getting out on a foot patrol and actually getting to know people. But that’s not what we did.
We drove around in these armored vehicles and we looked at them and they looked at us and we hardly got to know them at all. It is easy to kill somebody that you don’t know. It’s a lot harder to kill somebody that you’ve gotten to know or that you’ve, you know, developed a relationship with, either the people in general or specifically.
But let me also say the other side of this is that what I really felt, I really felt a social justice part of what I was doing because we took apart every single IED and it didn’t matter what the target was. It didn’t matter if it was in an Iraqi school or if it was hitting an American convoy or whatever else.
We didn’t ask questions. You just take them all apart, which means you have some satisfaction, maybe at least a little bit. In some ways, you’re not choosing sides. You’re just trying to reduce the overall threat, the overall danger of the entire place.
Tavis: This is a question I could not have asked you when you were in uniform. Since you are no longer in uniform, I can ask it. It still doesn’t mean you’re gonna give me an answer, but I’m gonna ask anyway [laugh]. That is whether or not you see – whether your world view is different, whether the political prism through which you see the world is different.
I’m not asking you to demonize or cast aspersion on a particular president. I’m just trying to get a sense of now that you’ve survived that, whether or not you look differently at the world. Do you look through a different prism now?
Castner: I do. I don’t have a political prism. You know, a lot of putting it in that context makes less and less sense to me, especially the way American politics works now. It’s mostly about parties getting people elected and the policy and the why and all those things a lot of times are just lost, right?
I guess I look at people and I don’t – war is a terrible thing that’s gonna continue for a very long time. And as long as we have tribes and, by that I mean, we put groups of people and we say that we have this group and they’re different than this group. As long as we do that, war is going to exist. But the meaning of my tribe is better or not or the why of all of that just makes almost no sense to me anymore.
I talk about that just a little bit at the end of the book that a lot of these distinctions of the countries and the people and everything else, there our distinctions. They’re not real. They’re what we created that we put on top of it.
Tavis: I got just a few quick seconds to go. I want to close by asking whether or not, with all of this said, do you ever think about or have you attempted to want to go back?
Castner: Absolutely, every day.
Tavis: You’re crazy.
Castner: I’ve got friends there and I want to keep them safe.
Castner: So just because your war ends, the people closest to you in your life, people closer than family, they’re still there getting shot at and that’s really tough.
Tavis: I understand that, I understand that. The book from Brian Castner is called “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows”. I’ve enjoyed this conversation immensely. Thank you for your service and thank you for coming on and talking about it.
Castner: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Appreciate it. Nice to meet you.
Castner: Nice to meet you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app from the iTunes App Store. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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