The EODexplosive ordnance disposalcommunity is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt's widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer?
In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other sidefrom Al-Qaeda to ISIS has been selecting its own high-value targets.
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All the Ways We Kill and Die
An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer
By Brian Castner
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2016 Brian Castner
All rights reserved.
A western mountain warm spell had stolen the modest Christmas snows, and the home of Matthew and Jennifer Schwartz sat among bare trees and dying grass, a pale house on a brown lawn.
The house was nearly empty. The girls were off at school. Jesus and his radiant Sacred Heart stared from the living room wall at a blank television and forgotten couch. Duke the chocolate Lab slept at the foot of the stairs. The only sound in the empty house was the mechanical hum of the treadmill and the regular beat of a runner's footfalls.
The house was often empty. A new pickup truck and trailer filled the driveway, camping equipment filled the garage, dirty dishes filled the sink, Duke shuffled and huffed about the backyard, the three girls laughed and sang songs, but Matt was gone, always gone, and the hole remained. A toothbrush here, a T-shirt there, the small reminders of him were strewn about the house like so many pretty gold rings, and she but the amputated stump of a hand with no fingers.
That morning Jenny was finishing another long run on her treadmill. She had discovered running on Matt's second tour. At the start of his deployments, she ran four or six miles. Now that he had been gone three months, she was up to ten and barely out of breath.
Jenny had learned long ago not to pine by the phone; it only made the hours crawl. But she had also learned to save the last recording on the answering machine, not to delete the last email. Matt had been out on a long-distance patrol for over a week, and had managed only a quick and broken sat phone call. So more than anything, it was a last email that kept tumbling through her head. It bothered her that it read like a last email. Heavy zippered sweatshirts in the dryer, tumble, tumble, the email always in the back of her mind as she ran.
Jenny was soaked when she got off the treadmill, dripping the sweaty, unwashed funk that comes from not having showered since, well, who keeps track of these things when your husband is gone and the girls need you? She paced and began her stretching routine, and the doorbell rang. Under no circumstances would she ever answer the door smelling like she did, but she did look out the window.
She saw a sea of uniform blue hats stark against the dry Wyoming prairie.
If I don't answer the door, she thought, he's not dead. He's not dead yet.
The doorbell rang again. Perhaps a third time. They weren't leaving.
Jenny disconnected her mind and entered a dream. She felt herself drifting across the floor as her feet, under their own programming and direction, moved her body to the door.
"Ma'am, are you Mrs. Jennifer Schwartz?"
Yes, the empty body answered.
"Ma'am, on behalf of the United States government, we regret to inform you that your husband has been killed in action in Afghanistan."
That January evening, soon after the New Year, when darkness comes early to New York State's northern tier and the chill clamps tight, I finished a walk in my woods and shed my snowshoes at the back door to find my wife curled up under a knitted blanket on the couch, nestled in front of the Christmas tree as one would sit before a fire, a still twinkling in an otherwise unlit room.
The kids busied themselves with an embarrassment of new toys, recent Christmas gifts from all members of the family. A pile of papers, my wife's half-edited PhD dissertation, lay abandoned next to her in this, her favorite of post-holiday spots; Jessie's efforts to work were stymied by the softness of the seat and the comfort of the blanket, the pleasant glow from so many small white lights and the snow outside. I kissed her and snuggled in and felt the warmth from her back and neck and no one had tried to kill me in five years.
We sat together on the couch, and I pulled out my phone, an unconscious habit. My thumb moved through various Facebook status updates, past children at Disney World, a four-year-old's birthday party, a new hairstyle and car, political memes like modern prayer cards. I checked on Dan Fye, who had lost a leg half a year earlier and was struggling through rehab with a halo of pins and screws erupting from joints. I checked on Evil, to see if he had time to update while flying out of Bagram. I checked on three dozen other friends, brothers really, closer than any friends, who were in Afghanistan, about to leave for Afghanistan, just back from another tour. Jessie asked me what I was looking at, and I lied and said, "Nothing," as she stared at the tree in peace.
I was thumbing through my phone, my wife's head across my chest, my children distantly playing some electronic game in the basement, when it happened. No telegram arrived. The phone did not ring. There was no knock on the front door. The tiny screen on my phone simply flickered as I scrolled to more recent updates.
First, a more distant acquaintance changed his Facebook profile photo. His smiling suntanned face became the bomb squad's ordnance-and-lightning badge with a thick black band across it, the universal symbol for mourning. Someone had died. Then a second friend changed his photo as well. Someone had died recently, or at least, the news was only now getting out.
So I started over, reviewed when everyone in Afghanistan had last checked in. It was an exercise in frustration. For some it had been weeks; when on patrol in the mountains, a civilian Internet connection was hard to find. I checked the updates of those who normally announce bad news, but there was silence from the Chiefs and commanders. As a last resort, I rechecked the wife network, for offers of vague support and prayers. Nothing from Amanda, but her husband was still recovering from his gunshot wound. Nothing from Monica and Aleesha. Jenny had been silent for hours, which was unlike her, and her husband Matt was deployed. Had he called and told her who it was?
Then a new status update popped up. "Fuck you Afghanistan."
This was from Pinkham, a much closer friend. My chest clenched. A choke collar around my neck tightened.
Then immediately a direct message to me, from one of the few female techs I served with, Angela Olguin: "I assume u r in the know?"
No, I wanted to shout, I was not in the know. The crossover potential between Pinkham and Angela was small. We had all been assigned to the same unit in New Mexico, a small company of sixteen. Who was there? Kermit, already killed in Iraq. Bill Hailer, retired. Dee, retired. Garet, in Japan. Beau, shot and home. Hamski, already killed. Pinkham, Angela. Matthew Schwartz, who was deployed. Wes Leaverton, was he deployed? Laz? I thought he was in Guam. Piontek, no he got out. Burns too. Who else?
I grew agitated and fidgety, broke the Christmas tree spell.
"What is it?" asked Jessica as she sat up, wary, defensive, holding the blanket to her chin.
"We, we lost someone," I fumbled.
"Please don't let it be Matt," my wife pleaded.
Why Matt? Why did she say Matt?
As fast as my fingers and thumbs could work, I messaged back to Angela: "No, fuck, what happened?"
My mind raced. Who was it? Who's the worst it could be? Imagine him or her, imagine the worst outcome, and then whoever it is will be a relief.
In our job, we knew there would be casualties. Well, not at first, not when Afghanistan started. But eventually we grew to understand that while our vocation had provided a new family of brothers and sisters, it did so on the condition that too often they would die young. We had all by now learned how to lose acquaintances, a guy you had trained with, a guy you met once on a range clearance or Secret Service mission, a guy whose face appeared in every group photo.
But in time most of us developed a list, buried in the subconscious until moments like these. Five or ten names. The guys you can't lose. The guys that have to make it back. It is a bargain with Satan. If I have to lose brothers, you tell yourself, I can bear it all as long as you spare these few. Matt and Josh and Phillips and don't make me say them all. Please, just don't take this small list that I am hiding in a place I am terrified to look.
Why did Jessie say Matt? Why did she have to say his name out loud?
I sat and shook and repeated my names like a mantra, and Jessie clutched the blanket, and I stared at my phone until it rang not ten seconds later. It was Angela.
"Matt died this morning," she sobbed.
I nodded my head to Jessie. Her face broke into a thousand pieces, and she collapsed on the floor in front of the glowing Christmas tree.
I didn't get it right away, but it makes sense now when I look back on it. Of course I would do an investigation. The training kicked in, subconsciously. Grief drove me to unusual lengths, but the old instincts informed the process.
I was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, a leader in the military's bomb squad. We call it a brotherhood, and there are so few of us we're all connected by only one or two degrees of separation. The brotherhood is a mindset, an affection, a burden, a bond that endures long after the crucible of EOD school and deployments around the world are over. It's the covenant we keep with those in the ground, our responsibility to those hobbled before their time, the standard by which I secretly measure everyone I meet.
In EOD, our job is to make bombs safe. Sometimes we can disarm the device before it goes off. Too often, though, the bomb works as designed, and we're left picking up the pieces, human and mechanical, to figure out what happened. Collecting the forensic evidence, recreating the scene, imagining the attacker's intentions, noting the effect of each munition on the human body. This is all fundamental to how we are trained to think.
There are so many ways to die, and right away, from the first moment, I wanted to know how Matt died, every last detail. It's a basic human response magnified by my professional calling. It was January of 2012. We thought Iraq was over, but Afghanistan was still bloody, and Matt was just the latest in a terrible string of killed and crippled. Fifteen of my fellow EOD brothers had died in the previous twelve months, a killed-in-action rate of 5 percent, over ten times the average for American soldiers at the time. The year before that had been even worse, and I had lost track of the number of amputees created. For a while there, it seemed like every few days you heard someone lost a leg.
Some of us slip through the war unscathed, and some are lost to it, and some step up to the brink and then are pulled back from the abyss.
War can be random; you can die from bad luck, wrong place at the wrong time. But other times they pick you out of the crowd, and it's intentional and premeditated. If it weren't a war, we'd call that murder.
I needed to know which it was. Was Matt unlucky or targeted?
So I did an investigation. In EOD, you always work as a team, and so I started with my teammates. I talked to the maimed, the too often forgotten survivors of both the random and deliberate bombs, and the medics who treated them. I talked to the detectives, the intelligence analysts and interrogators, who work the forensics and build the profile of the bomber. I talked to the hunters and killers who finish the job. I collected evidence from all of them, the same as I would from a blast site. And in the end, I learned that the story of Matt's death was also the story of the Surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, that both we and the jihadists have fundamentally changed the methods by which we fight, and that Matt was fatally caught up in all of it.
That's the story I'll tell here. All the ways we die, and nearly die, and who and how we kill in response.
But first I had to bury the dead.CHAPTER 2
Road to Perdition
Jenny Schwartz wished she was wearing a T-shirt that bore the news. That would make life just a little easier, save her the trouble of constant explanation.
If she had a T-shirt, it would be like wearing dark sunglasses and holding a white cane. Some small part of her brain would calm, as everyone around her would instinctively know that beginning yesterday, and for the rest of her life, the context of every future breath had been irreparably altered.
Instead, she felt the need to tell everyone around her, every stranger she met. It was like a mouthful of too-hot coffee. It had to come out.
And so as she sat on that commercial airplane from Cheyenne to Delaware, flying via a hastily arranged ticket that probably cost more money than she made in a month, she couldn't help herself. She just said it to the man vacuum-sealed into the seat next to her.
He was fat. He spilled over the armrest. He was in his early thirties probably, about her age. He was sweating slightly. He had not stopped talking since they took off. Her eyes may have been red and puffy; was that why he kept going on and on, relieving some perceived social awkwardness? All at once, it was too much. She cut him off.
"I'm sorry, but I just need to tell you this. My husband died yesterday morning in Afghanistan. We're going to meet his body at the morgue."
And then a flood from the fatty mouth. I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I can't imagine. I just want to give you a hug. You just look like you need a hug. Do you need anything? Please, can I buy you a drink? Do you need somewhere to stay in Delaware? Here, here is my card. You can call me any time. Just to talk, if you need someone to talk to. You know, for now, just to talk.
Widow, she thought, not for the last time. It would be easier if I just had a T-shirt that said "widow."
She would tell everyone by the end of the day. The flight attendants. Taxi drivers and waitresses. The clerk at the Fisher House and the maid on the way to her room and the guys at the EOD unit who already knew and her friends who kept calling and texting her phone and filling her Facebook wall with prayers. She would tell all of them the same thing. "I'm sorry. My husband died yesterday."
But for now, she just sat in her seat on the plane and waited and looked out the window. She had just left a town at war; Cheyenne has two military bases within a mile of city hall. Her destination, Dover, Delaware, was a similar small town with a large base, the debarkation point for thousands of dead. Dover was also at war. But were the lands in between? For years Jenny had felt she was living a separate life, a parallel track from the America that she saw on the news or from her few nonmilitary friends on Facebook. The feeling of isolation was only growing.
Isolation, and anger. She was furious at him, for dying, for leaving her to bury him alone.
Jenny would eventually ask why. After a year or two, she would. It would take time, longer than her friends imagined, but she would. That day, though, and for many long months that followed, asking why didn't make sense. There was only a how, and on that airplane, the day after he died, this was how.
Jennifer O'Brien and Matthew Schwartz had grown up together in Traverse City, Michigan. Back then it was a poor and shrinking cluster of houses on a frozen lake, not the beach town and artist retreat it is today, and they were two kids largely left to make their own way. Jenny's parents had died in a car accident on Christmas Eve when she was very young, and so her much older sister had raised her. Matt's mother and father had divorced, and were only occasionally part of his life as a child. Not abandoned, not estranged, but also not consistently present. Day-to-day he was raised by his grandparents, a chore they embraced. His grandmother always called Matthew by his full name, because it means "Gift of God."
Jenny and Matt met in a local grocery store where they both worked, she fifteen, he a year older. His hair was long and he partied too much, but he was goofy, "a giant goober" she would call him, and she liked that. Neither was dedicated to school. No family member or guidance counselor intervened. Neither thought about where they were headed. Both college and career remained unconsidered paths. After high school, Matt worked as the night security guard at the local Sara Lee factory. Jenny got a job at the front desk of the Grand Traverse Resort. She sat and answered phones and watched the massage therapists make more money. I could do that, she thought. But she didn't. Matt took a couple of classes to get his private pilot's license, but quickly ran out of money. Aimless and unsatisfied, Matt and Jenny broke up, and as he was now free of his primary Traverse City attachment, Matt enlisted in the military in late 1999 for reasons common to countless numbers of young men before him: the simple need to leave.
Excerpted from All the Ways We Kill and Die by Brian Castner. Copyright © 2016 Brian Castner. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author’s Note xiii
Part I: The Dead
1 Blast Waves 7
2 Road to Perdition 14
3 A Frozen Funeral 33
4 Cat vs. Cat 50
PART II: Tend the Wounded
5 One Hour to Kandahar 75
6 A Child’s Pride 95
7 The Robot Has a Name 106
8 Breached Hulls 126
Part III: Collect the Evidence
9 Brave New War 145
10 I’m Going to Kill You Bomb Man 161
Part IV: Hunt and Kill
11 The Black Hole 181
12 Helmet Fire 213
13 Khowst Bowl 233
14 Long and Messy and Gray 255
Part V: The Dead Revisited
15 All the Ways We Live and Die 277
Selected Bibliography and Reading List 338