This thrilling, heartbreaking, stunningly honest book alternates between two harrowing realities: the terror, excitement, and camaraderie of combat, and the lonely battle against the unshakeable fear, anxiety, and survivor guilt that he—like so many veterans—carries inside.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.32(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.69(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I | Whirl Is King
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.
When you’re Crazy, you make a list of people you have told, the people you have come out to. My list is small. One best friend but not another. Jimbo and John and Greg, but not the other guys on the team. Your wife but not your mother. Those that you think will get it, will understand.
And now I’m telling you. That I’m Crazy, and I don’t know why.
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.
I run every day, twice a day sometimes, out the front door of my peaceful suburban home, past sticky blast scenes of sewage, and motor oil, and bloody swamps of trash and debris, ankle deep, filling the road, sidewalks, shop and house doorsteps. I run through dust clouds, blown in off the desert or kicked up by the helo rotor wash. I run past the screaming women that never shut up, don’t shut up now. I should have made them stop when I had a chance. I run as fast as I can, as long as I can, my feet hitting the pavement in a furious rhythm, along the river near my home.
I run in the hottest part of the day, the full afternoon blaze, the heat of the black asphalt, baking in the summer sun, rising through my shoes and into my feet. I speed up, but the Crazy feeling is still winning. It overwhelms. Sweat pours down my flushed face, in my eyes. Albeitz is chalk white skin and brown dried blood from head to toe. Kermit’s skin was blue, after they finally found him and put him in his box. Did Jeff have any skin left to show his mother?
I run every day, on the road and along the river stretching to my left, occasionally veiled by low trees swaying in the sunshine and the light breeze off the water. My left knee started aching five miles ago. My teeth are rotting out of my head. My throat closes. My left eye twitches. The detonation rains concrete chunks on my head, splits my ears, dismantles our robot, and peppers the armored truck with molten steel. I reach for my rifle.
I run down the road outside my home, to the drone of Humvee diesel engines and in the purple sunrise over a flat desert. The Crazy in my chest is full to bursting, but the protest of my overworked lungs and heart tamps it down. The Crazy feeling never leaves, but the run makes the rest of the body scream louder, one din to cover another.
The foot sits in the box. Because why not? Where else would you put it? The foot sat in the box.
I run and don’t want to stop. The adrenaline has been building all day, and it finally has a release. The boil overflows. Fidgety legs and shaking arms pump and swing. When I stop, the Crazy feeling refloods my swollen heart, lungs, ribs. My eye twitches. I speed up again.
My head swims and swirls. Helicopters and dust fade. I put my rifle down, shrug off my vest. Sweat wipes clean Albeitz’s hands, and Ricky’s head, and Jeff and Kermit, and . . . and? My knee is screaming louder than the women. My ragged breath shakes my chest. I run, and run, and run, and in the Is try to pound out of my head what once Was.
The C-130 landed in Kirkuk just before dark. A couple of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, driven by our tired predecessors, were there to meet us at the end of a long and exhausting day. Truth is, they would gladly have met us at any time, in the middle of the night even, because our arrival meant they could leave. Leave to go home, to wives and children and sex and alcohol and sleeping in and not getting shot at. The place we had just come from.
You can drive the little stick-shift Hiluxes on the FOB—our walled Forward Operating Base—because no one is trying to kill you there. It’s a foreign reminder of home, a normal thing to do every day. Get in a regular truck and drive, on the right side of the road, at a normal speed, with no one trying to shoot you. Simple pleasure.
Bags of gear piled high in the truck beds, we pulled up to the converted hardened aircraft shelter on the west side of the runway, our home base for the rest of our tour. The French-made blast doors of the HAS were cracked open, and the two-foot-thick rounded concrete roof arched three stories overhead. Inside were the aluminum bunk trailers, the plywood offices and ops desk, a tent or two housing dusty equipment. Our whole operation, under the protective concrete canopy.
As I lay in bed that night, in my new cell—bed, table, trunk, shelf—I stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes, and I was in my old room in Balad. I opened them in Kirkuk. Closed, and I smelled the diesel fuel off the droning generator, the dead mice caught in our traps, the rotting tent flaps of my fabric-partitioned room in Balad. Open them and it’s just the sheet-metal ceiling of my box in Kirkuk.
I’m back. I’m still here. I never left.
It was less than a year and I was back in Iraq. It was less than a minute and I was back in Iraq.
I needed to be back. I would do better this time.
I lie in bed blown up like a balloon, my chest distended and full. The Crazy feeling has filled me to the brim in the darkness of my bedroom, alone next to my sleeping wife. My left arm has gone numb again, left eye twitching as I attempt to close it. The gurgling in my back is growing, first low, then on my upper left side. My heart beats loud, hard, sporadic. I miss a beat. Speed up, catch up. Miss two. A catch-up again. The more I miss the more the Crazy feeling grows. High, full, boiling sea.
I sit up, turn my feet over the side of the bed, and just try to breathe. My lips tingle and my head spins. My wife has found me on the floor before, face to the pine, a divot on my forehead where I hit the dresser corner on the way down. I lie back down to avoid a repeat.
My heart bumps, skips, and gurgles. My jaw aches and I check again for loose teeth. My eye twitches. And again. The Crazy feeling builds and builds. It never stops, it never ends, there is no relief.
My helium chest is light as a feather. The weight of the ceiling is a granite block pushing my chest into the bed.
What the fuck is happening to me?
The streets got narrower and narrower as we entered the town of Hawija. The broad highway gave way to two-lane main arteries, then narrower neighborhood roads, then one-lane funnels between high courtyard walls. Over a curb and through one tiny gap, and our driving mirrors on each side snapped off clean, our door handles scraping away rock and concrete in the pinch point. Flanks scoured clean, our armored truck now matched the security vehicles to the front and rear.
No one drives through the heart of Hawija unless forced; so much hate packed into such a small space. But with the ring roads blocked by route-clearance teams and security cordons, we plunged into the center, as fast as the Humvees allowed.
Dodging old blast craters, dead dogs, and mountainous garbage piles, we snaked through fortified neighborhoods before hitting the marketplace at the town’s center. In the busy market, the number of civilians suddenly swelled, and our convoy started to get bogged down, weaving but stymied by foot and vehicle traffic. Soon the mass of humanity started to press in, and we slowed further.
“Why are we slowing down?” I yelled up to Ackeret, who was behind the wheel.
“There are people in the way, and they won’t fucking move!” came the reply.
Slowing is okay. Stopping is not.
I turned in my seat, faced out. I checked my rifle mag, pistol, stretched in my body armor and readjusted it. Right hand went to the rifle, left hand to the truck door handle. We slowed further.
I searched the crowd. Booths and stalls, selling fruit and electronics, lined the sidewalks. The crowds walked and pushed closer and closer the slower our Humvees went. Kids pointed at us through our armored glass windows, yelling then scurrying back down alleyways that emerged every half block. I scanned for threats, but the tent covers of the shop booths, stretched taut to shade the harsh summer sun, blocked my view of rooftops. Shots from higher ground? An RKG-3 antitank grenade, tossed from the opening crowd? The Iraqi Army and local police were nowhere to be seen. I readjusted my rifle again, and popped open the dust covers on my optical sight.
But we had not stopped. Not yet.
Men with flat faces of unreadable sternness, walking alongside, began to look into the Humvee windows. Kids moved up, tapped on the door, and then ran off, disappearing into the rabbit warrens. If the attack comes, it will be quick. The crowd, like a school of fish, will suddenly all turn and move away. The sea parts, the attacker rushes in, grenade already in the air. A detonation, a lance through the flimsy armor, a flash through arm, leg, chest, and then the flock closes again, attacker absorbed, and scatters.
We stopped. Ackeret repeatedly hit the steering wheel in frustration.
I looked out, and the enraged beast was now pressed against the side of the Humvee, banging and yelling.
“We need to get moving!” But we didn’t. We had ground to a halt in the center of the market.
I gripped the door handle tighter. If we started to get overrun, we needed to disperse the crowd. There was a small gap, less than eighteen inches, between my door and the edge of the mob. I placed my foot on the bottom of the door, and prepared to push. With no top gunner on our Humvee, we’d have to exit and shoot to get a rioting crowd to move back. In one motion, I would throw the two-hundred-pound door open into the throng as hard as I could and rush out. My rifle would come up and forward, barrel end a battering ram directly into the chest of the man closest to me, pulling the trigger as I moved the rifle back to my shoulder. The man in the red-and-white shirt would die first, bullet into chest with no gap between barrel and skin. The next three, teenager in a Nike shirt, older man in a tan man-dress, and another with a bike, would die from my shots two feet away, probably as they fell back in reaction to Red-and-White going down. With the crowd knocked back from the force of the opening door and the shock of the first four dead, I would have time to remount. And if not, if I was swarmed and my rifle grabbed, the pistol in the cross-draw holster on my chest was in easy reach of one hand. It could come out, and need not move far for me to fire and earn me a second or two.
The crowd had to break. The convoy had to move. I would get back to the FOB. I would get home.
I chose who would die in what order. Red-and-White, Nike Shirt, Man-Dress, then Bike. I looked in their eyes, flipped the safety on my rifle to Single, and waited.
I waited for the shot to come. It didn’t.
I waited for the grenade to be thrown. It wasn’t.
I waited for the mob to riot. They didn’t.
With a crawl, we started to move again, and drove off.
The Crazy didn’t start right away. It stalked me for years.
Your first sign something may be amiss comes quickly, the moment you get off the plane at the airport in Baltimore. After months of deprivation, American excess is overwhelming. Crowds of self-important bustling businessmen. Shrill and impatient advertising that saturates your eyes and ears. Five choices of restaurant, with a hundred menu items each, only a half-minute walk away at all times. In the land you just left, dinners are uniformly brown and served on trays when served at all. I was disoriented by the choice, the lights, the infinite variety of gummy candy that filled an entire wall of the convenience store, a gluttonous buffet repeated every four gates. The simple pleasure of a cup of coffee after a good night’s sleep, sleep you haven’t had since you received your deployment orders, seems overly simple when reunited with such a vast volume of overindulgent options.
But the shock wears off, more quickly for some, but eventually for most. Fast food and alcohol are seductive, and I didn’t fight too hard. Your old routine is easy to fall back into, preferences and tastes return. It’s not hard to be a fussy, overstuffed American. After a couple of months, home is no longer foreign, and you are free to resume your old life.
I thought I did. Resume my old life, that is. I was wrong.
The car bomb went off just outside of our FOB, in downtown Kirkuk, on the highway that leads north to Irbil and the peaceful Kurdish lands untouched by the war. We felt it in the HAS, a shaking rumble like thunder on a clear hot day. We had put our gear on and were waiting for our security escort even before the call came in to go investigate.
The car had stopped burning by the time we arrived. A twisted black shell, frame, and engine block smoldering, hot to the touch. The Iraqi Police had cordoned off the scene, yelling at pedestrians to move back. The reverse dichotomy always struck me. The scene of the blast, where so much violence had happened minutes before, was now empty and quiet. The surrounding neighborhood, peaceful until the attack, was now a roiling cauldron of frustration and anger.
Castleman and I started the investigation at the blast hole. The asphalt punctured, wet with a mix of fluids, some mechanical, some human. The car frame was several feet from the crater, thrown by the force of the explosion. It yielded no clues; any wires, switches, batteries, or fingerprints were burned away in the fire. We could have found traces of explosive residue if we had had the time. We didn’t have the time.
I looked up from the hulk and surveyed further out. Chunks of steel frag were buried in a nearby concrete wall. A fully intact artillery projectile, a 130 or 155, probably, from the size and shape, failing to detonate and instead kicked out by the blast, was caught in a fence a hundred feet away. We would grab that and blow it before we left.
“It smells like shit!” I said. And it did.
“Sir, it always smells like shit in this country,” answered Castleman.
He was right. But this wasn’t the normal smell of shit: diesel exhaust, burning trash, sweat, and grime, the body odor of an unwashed city. We smelled that mix every day. No, this smelled like actual shit. Human shit.
“Check this out,” called Castleman.
He had found the target of the car bomb. Bloody shirts and boots of Iraqi policemen. A pair of pants, dropped or torn off, with a month’s wages in frayed and scorched 250-dinar notes poking out from a front pocket. Hands and feet. Several pools of drying blood. The smell of shit was stifling, and getting worse.
A quick count of right hands indicated a couple dead, at least. Who knows how many wounded, pulled out by their fellow police, now dead or dying at the overwhelmed hospital. The Iraqi cops had already picked up the biggest parts, so any count we made was going to be wrong. It wasn’t worth the trouble to get the exact right number anyway. I continued on.
The smell of shit was overwhelming in the afternoon heat. I looked down.
“Hey, I found it!” I yelled to Castleman, who was taking pictures of the scene for evidence.
There at my feet was a perfectly formed, and entirely intact, lower intestine. The small intestine above and anus below were torn off and scattered, but the colon itself was pristine, and lay there like I had just removed it from the organ bag in the gut of a Thanksgiving turkey. It was beautiful, stuffed with the digested remains of an unknown last meal.
Castleman walked over and looked down where I pointed. The intestine smelled like it was cooking in a pan.
He shrugged. I shrugged back.
We walked off and left that shit-filled colon to bake on the black asphalt in the hot Iraqi summer sun.
Table of Contents
Authors Note xi
I Whirl Is King 1
II The Soft Sand 18
III Failure 36
IV The Daily Grind 59
V The Day of Six VBIEDs 81
VI Kermit 102
VII GUU-5/P 122
VIII The Science and the Chakras 150
IX The Foot in the Box 173
X Ricky 194
XI The Mountain 209
What People are Saying About This
Damn, this is a very human book. If you have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan, or know someone who has, you need to read The Long Walk.
—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Gamble
The Long Walk is a raw, wrenching, blood-soaked chronicle of the human cost of war. Brian Castner, the leader of a military bomb disposal team, recounts his deployment to Iraq with unflinching candor, and in the process exposes crucial truths not only about this particular conflict, but also about war throughout history. Castner's memoir brings to mind Erich Maria Remarque's masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front.
—Jon Krakauer, author of Where Men Win Glory
Castner has written a powerful book about the long cost of combat and the brotherhood of men at arms. Remarkably, he has made the world of the EOD entertaining, occasionally hilarious, and always harrowing. His honesty is refreshing and the book is written with such candor and openness that one can't help but root for him. And did I mention that it is entertaining? There were scenes at work with the bomb disposal unit where I found myself holding my breath.
—Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
Do you want to know a little something about our war in Iraq? Begin with The Long Walk, Brian Castner's elegant, superbly written story about the bomb-disposal guys. As you read think of Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Castner gives us that steady rhythm of one foot in front of the other. Think of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Here is the reality of the exhausted mind, and of profound thought wandering all Creation: this is what I saw, this is what I did, this is what I have become. It's the story of the long walk out, as they say, from the Humvee to the bomb in the street, and the long look back.
—Larry Heinemann, author of the National Book Award-winning Paco's Story and Close Quarters
A Conversation with Brian Castner, Author of The Long Walk
When did you first realize you wanted to get your experiences in combat and with PTSD down on paper? Had you written before?
I had written a little before, and in retrospect, I'm amazed it took me so long to realize that putting down my experience might help me deal with my mental health issues. Perhaps that says something about the depth of the hole one finds oneself in, when trying to understand such a confusing and uncontrollable process. So in high school I wanted to be a writer, but I left that behind when I went to college to be an engineer for the Air Force. I wrote a little piece for Newsweek when I was getting out of the military, for their My Turn column they used to run. But it was only at my therapist's urging that I started writing notes when the Crazy episodes got so bad, and it took me several months of furious scribbling to realize I had the start of a book other people might want to read.
Did you keep a journal while you were in Iraq or after you came home?
I did keep a journal, but sporadically, and I always felt guilty that I didn't write more. My grandfather kept a journal on his march to Berlin in World War II, and I felt like I wanted to be able to give a similar thing to my own grandchildren. But I put it aside after I got back from Iraq the second time, and didn't open it up again until I was nearly done writing the book.
Did you read other war memoirs (Jarhead, for instance) either before you went over to Iraq or once you came home? How did those books informor not informyour own writing?
I am a big reader, and for a long time I only read military related books - my wife called it my War Shelf. I read Jarhead when it was released in 2003, and it struck a chord with me because it felt like my own experience in the Middle East. That was before I went to Iraq, and I had spent my time in Saudi Arabia mostly waiting for something to happen, much like Swofford. I didn't want my memoir to be subconsciously too informed or over-influenced by anyone else's, so I took a break from "war books" while I wrote mine. Since, I've read more, caught up a bit you could say, and find kinship more with Vietnam memoirs - O'Brien's The Things They Carried obviously, but also Larry Heinneman's Paco's Story and Haldeman's Forever War, which is a Vietnam book if there ever was one - than more modern examples. The exception is Junger's War. I am so grateful I only read it after I was done with the edits on my own book. It is so well crafted and definitive, I might never have started writing my book if I had read it first.
One of many remarkable aspects of your book is how riveting your descriptions of your PTSD are, literally taking the reader inside your heart and mind as you were experiencing it. How difficult was it for you to go back to that place, essentially experiencing those feelings again for the second time?
I experienced those feelings continuously while writing the book anyway, so I wasn't diving back in. Some of the events in the book, such as my son's hockey game, didn't even occur until I was three quarters of the way through writing the first draft. I was living the stories, it was my every day reality, so writing it or not was all the same, emotionally.
In the book, running and yoga were among the activities that helped you healboth in body and mind. How important are those activities to you today?
Very important. I run about 15-18 miles a week. I do yoga every week. If I don't do either for a week or two at a time, I feel myself getting itchy, old feelings creep back in. I know my daily framework is fragile, and many veterans go through good and bad times, so I an diligent about the regular maintenance. It's just a part of my life now. It's how I'm built.
Has your wife read the book? Will you share the book with your sons once they are old enough to appreciate it?
I wouldn't let me wife read the book until I had an agent and we had sold it to Doubleday. She knew I was writing it obviously, but I didn't share it because I couldn't take it if she didn't like it. I was writing something so personal, any critique of the book would have been a critique of me, and our marriage (not to mention my mental state) wasn't in a strong enough place to handle that. She eventually read it in one sitting, and we had a long talk afterwards. In the later edits, we added just a little bit more of her to the book. I was uncomfortable speaking for her, or putting words in her mouth, so I avoided that until almost the very end.
I will let my sons read it, but not until they are much older. I don't know exactly when. But my motivation for writing the book, before I had an agent or publisher or let myself consider such wide distribution, was always to write the book for them, and if I never sold a single copy, I told myself I'd print one out and put it on the shelf and save it for them for later, to be able to point to it, and share it, and say "this is why Dad is the way he is, and acted like he did when you were younger."
What's next for you?
I'd like to be a writer. I'm working on a new book now, related but distinct. I feel tremendously lucky and grateful that the sum of my life experiences have led me to a place where I could write one story that is meaningful to a variety of readers, and that if I work hard I might get another shot to do it again.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have rediscovered Mick Cochrane, a fellow Buffalonian and the author of several books, including his latest, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. I have only met him recently, but he is an extremely gracious and encouraging man, and has become a fantastic mentor to me in a very short period of time. I just finished Flesh Wounds, his first novel, and it has a lot to teach a young writer about expressing emotional truth in an honest, non-gimmicky sort of way. Every page is pitch perfect and just feels right.