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'The Life That Follows' Disarming IEDs In Iraq

Brian Castner served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006.
Joey Campagna
Courtesy of the author
Brian Castner served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006.

This interview was originally broadcast on July 8, 2012.

Brian Castner arguably had one of the most nerve-wracking jobs in the U.S. military. He commanded two Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq, where his team disabled roadside IEDs, investigated the aftermath of roadside car bombings and searched door to door to uncover bomb-makers at their homes.

"We would disassemble the IEDs when somebody else found them; we would go on route-clearance patrols with the engineers to trip the ambushes before they would hit our convoys; and we would do the post-blast investigations," Castner tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Hopefully we would find weapons caches and dispose of a lot of this bulk ordnance before it would be used as an IED. ... But there was no getting rid of all of the bombs."

Sometimes those bombs would go off and Castner's team would be responsible for investigating the gruesome aftermath.

"You would show up and the loved ones would already be picking up bodies or pieces of bodies and they're already loading the destroyed car onto a flatbed, and it's bad enough that you're out there doing this but they're getting in the way of you doing your job," he says. "We could be there for 10 minutes. Because the longer you're there, the more chance you have to get shot at or have a mortar dropped on your head. So you get out as quickly as you can."

In his memoir, The Long Walk, which is currently being adapted as an opera for the American Lyric Theater, Castner chronicles his three tours in Iraq and the life that followed when he returned home as a different man, unable to forget what he saw or experienced in Iraq. He describes his experiences as "Crazy" — a term that is often repeated in the book.

"You don't want to be a caricature of yourself but that's what it felt like I was turning into," he says. "And I needed a word [for it]. And if you're nauseous, you know you're about to throw up and if you have a headache, that's called pain. But I had a physical symptom that I didn't have a name for. ... So 'Crazy' was the best way to describe it."

Castner also had physical symptoms in addition to the problems in his mind. He began experiencing cognitive side effects related to his close exposure to blast attacks. In recent years, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Long-term-memory problems, hearing issues and sleep apnea have plagued his body.

"The one that really bothered me, by and far, is the long-term-memory loss," he says. "I've got some sections of when my kids are younger and when my wife and I met and really the first three-quarters of my marriage that I simply don't remember. ... That was part of what I was working through [when I wrote the book]. Why can I remember the day of six [car bombs] so well but I can't remember my kids being born?"

Interview Highlights

On transitioning to home life

"The stakes were all too low suddenly. Whether I did the dishes or not didn't seem to rise to the challenge of what I had done before. When nothing is important anymore, everything is important. Little things start to become too important and you start to become obsessive over the details. And that obsessive part of my brain that kept me alive in Iraq went into overdrive and it became the hindrance. It got in the way."

On why soldiers tie their ID and blood type around their feet instead of their hands

"It turns out that you put your blood type and your NKA (no known allergies) on my foot and you stick a dog tag in your laces because it's the part of you that's most likely to survive if you get blown up. We found feet a lot. If you're going to find a part of the bomber or victim, you might find their head. It's a better chance that you're going to find their hands and feet."

On arriving at the scene of an IED after it went off

"You become numb to it eventually. But I would never call it business as usual. And in fact, the post-blast mission is one that only really developed as the war went on. When I initially went through EOD school, there was no section of the training that was called post-blast investigation. On my first trip to Iraq in 2005, the first time I did one, I had to ask, 'Well, what does that even mean? What do you want me to look for?' "

On the long, lonely walk that was also portrayed in the 2008 film The Hurt Locker

"I put guys in suits all the time and I gave them the approval to put on the suit and go down nearly every day. And it is certainly the longest, loneliest walk that you will ever take. For an EOD guy who is used to being in control and accomplishing the mission, it is certainly more terrifying to be the one in the suit. But not having the sense of control to be the one used to just drive me nuts — to watch them walk down. Neither I nor anybody else can help them in that moment."

On giving the command to shoot a man who he thought might be triggering an IED

"It does not weigh on me because we made a mistake because mistakes happen in wartime. Everybody's just doing the best they can to survive every day. And so I don't regret it from that perspective. I felt like I wanted to give Trey [who was in my unit] the cover to do what he needed to do [which was disarm a potential bomb in a car] because I felt like that was my responsibility. If something bad happened, I wanted to have whatever was going to happen land on me instead of him. If there was an investigation or if there was some sort of wrongful death inquiry, I wanted them to come talk to me.

"But what really bothered me about that situation was [that] I had told myself that what we were doing in Iraq was keeping everyone alive. We kept U.S. soldiers alive, we kept Iraqis alive, we took apart every single bomb and it didn't matter who the target was — it didn't matter if it was going to blow up an Iraqi school or a U.S. convoy. You take them all apart. And in this situation, we were going to use our explosives to kill somebody instead of making Iraq just a little bit safer."

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