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Veterans Share Their Stories Of War And Its Consequences


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Before we get into today’s Veterans Day show, we want to note the passing of singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who died yesterday at the age of 82. Terry interviewed Leonard Cohen in 2006, and we played that interview three weeks ago when his new album, “You Want It Darker,” was released. We’ll rebroadcast that same interview again in two weeks on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, today on Veterans Day, we reflect on the consequences of war and honor those who have served in the armed forces. We’re going to observe the day by listening back to interviews in our archives with vets who have risked their lives in Iraq and in Europe during the second world war.

Being exposed to IEDs - improvised explosive devices - and car bombs of every sort was a way of life for our first guest, Brian Castner. He was the commander of an EOD unit in Iraq. EOD stands for explosive ordinance disposal. His unit’s mission was to clear roads, cities and buildings of IEDs, to find and blow up weapons stockpiles squirreled away throughout the country and to collect evidence from blast scenes to track down and kill the bomb makers. He had robots to diffuse IEDs, but when the robots couldn’t get the job done, one of his men had to put on the 80-pound protective Kevlar suit and do the long walk to the bomb, the real version of what was depicted in the film “The Hurt Locker.”

Brian Castner was an officer in the U.S. Air Force from December 1999 to September 2007 and wrote about commanding the EOD in his memoir, “The Long Walk.” He spoke with Terry in 2012.



Brian Castner, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of our listeners will know about the work that you did through the movie "The Hurt Locker," which I'm sure had some truth and fiction mixed together about the job. But, you know, the most dramatic thing in that film was when somebody had to put on, like, the suit, the 80-pound Kevlar suit and do, you know, the long walk to the actual bomb and then try to disassemble the bomb before it exploded.

Did you ever have to wear the suit and do the walk?

BRIAN CASTNER: You know, I never did. And as an officer and in command of the unit, I went on lots and lots of missions, but it was definitely my - the team leader, the specialist who has done nothing but the technical aspect of the job for a decade. You know, it was his job to put on the suit.

So 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, every other 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 able to do the one, used to just, you know, drive me nuts, to have to watch them walk down. And really, neither I nor anybody else can help them in that moment.

GROSS: Did any of the men you work with actually get killed wearing the suit and doing the long walk to disassemble a bomb?

CASTNER: I was extremely lucky. So nobody under my direct command did while I was commanding them or while I was in charge. I have lost a lot of friends who were in the suit. I have lost a lot of friends who were not in the suit because they never had a chance to put it on because something blew them up that they didn't see.

But I'm - I consider myself extremely fortunate that I was never in the position of saying, yeah, it's time to put it on and then to see them turn into that pink mist cloud.

GROSS: What did you wear yourself?

CASTNER: When we got started in Iraq, guys were putting on all sorts of combinations of hillbilly armor we called it. You bolted on metal plates to the side of your soft-skinned Humvee. And eventually the armor got so, so good, guys are really surviving blasts that they never would have before.

And when - I just went down in May to the EOD Memorial. We have a memorial in Florida in Fort Walton Beach, and there was a wall set up where we put all of the names of the guys who died in the last year. We have the annual ceremony in May, and then all of the names for everyone since World War II is on there.

And when you go to that ceremony, what strikes you is not just the number of names that we're putting on, which was 18 last year, which was the most since 1945, but then also that the other guys who are there attending, the number of people that have missing limbs, missing arms, missing legs, they probably would have died in previous wars, but the medical apparatus or infrastructure, I should say, that we have now is so good, people are losing multiple limbs, and they're coming home alive.

GROSS: Let's talk about one of the worst days for your group, and that was the day you describe as the day of the six VBIEDs, and VBIED is V-B-I-E-D. That's a vehicle-borne IED. So is that a car bomb that we're talking about? Is that basically a car bomb?

CASTNER: It is. Of course, the military has an acronym for everything.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

CASTNER: And so there were many kinds of IEDs, and they would just put different letters in front of them to differentiate, but car bomb is exactly right. We had six in 15 minutes. Five of them detonated, and one did not.

GROSS: OK, so that was a bad day, the day of the six car bombs. But you say the next day was even worse. Describe what happened the next day.

CASTNER: We actually had three days that were really bad, and this might tell you something about the nature of memory or how mixed up it all was in my mind. I didn't realize that these three days happened in succession until the book was nearly done, and I was looking through some of my old journals.

But on the first day, we did a raid on what we thought was an EFP factory, and it turned out not to be, in an Arab part of town. The next day, we had the day of six VBIEDs, and then the third day we were so amped up and ready for more that we had another VBIED, but it didn't - it never felt right from the beginning.

A vehicle rammed a U.S. convoy, which was not their normal tactic, and when the team got out there, Trey (ph), who was the team leader - he's a reservist, he's a cop, he's got a lot of experience in dealing with crowds and stressful situations, but I could tell something wasn't right. He was taking a lot of gunfire.

It happened at the central roundabout just south of Kirkuk, where a lot of different highways come in. So he was extremely exposed, getting shot at a lot. And as he was trying to take this bomb apart, he realized that the driver, who was shot, wasn't dead. And more than the fact that he wasn't dead, he refused to get out of the truck.

And so we got to a point, which is the situation that you really don't want to see or that we dread seeing, which is that one of our explosive tools, which is supposed to be used to disassemble a bomb to make it safe, we were going to be in the position of having to use it on a person.

If he didn't get out of the truck, we were going to have to blow it up with him in it.

GROSS: Why couldn't you just drag him out of the truck?

CASTNER: Well, that would involve taking the long walk again. We - and in fact, Trey went up and tried - he thought maybe the individual was pinned and couldn't get out of the truck. He didn't follow the commands of the interpreter, and he started putting his hands up underneath his clothing to activate what Trey thought was a bomb. So we had to shoot him. And as it turns out, there was nothing on him. And it's - and so it's decisions...

GROSS: Well, the thing he was reaching for, apparently, was his Quran.

CASTNER: Correct. He was - why was he walking to the crowd without stopping? Why was he reaching for it? I don't know. Was he planning on stopping to pray at that moment? I simply don't know.

GROSS: My impression from the book is that this experience really weighed on you because you had to give the command to shoot him. And it's something you really didn't want to do, is my impression. You called your captain and asked him what do we do, we don't want to kill this guy, but he's not going to get out of the car.

And the captain told you that, well, the military had already tried to kill him and shot him at least once, so, you know, basically do what you have to do. But then he gets out of the car, and you have to give the order to shoot. At the risk of stating - of asking the obvious, why has that weighed on you so much?

CASTNER: It's - it did - it has not weighed on me because we made a mistake because mistakes happen in wartime. Everybody's - everybody's just doing the best they can to survive every day. And so I don't regret it from that - from that perspective. I felt like I wanted to give Trey the cover to do what he needed to do because I felt like that was my responsibility.

If something bad happened, I wanted to make it - 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 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, you know, making Iraq just a little bit safer.

GROSS: How many blasts would you say approximately that you were near in Iraq?

CASTNER: I have about five or 10 that I would say I was way too close. And then I have another couple dozen that were probably too close enough that they did a little bit of brain damage. And then on average we would blow something up or something would blow us up about two or three times a day. So I guess the total number is in the hundreds. It’s maybe a thousand.

GROSS: Wow. So you always thought you were lucky for surviving - had your limbs, nothing blown off, no blood, no wounds. But after you came home, you realized the kind of permanent damage that exposure, sometimes very close exposure, to all those blasts had really caused. What's your understanding now of how exposure to those explosions affects your brain?

CASTNER: So there's been a lot of new research - and this is not something that anybody could've told me 10 years ago because we didn't have the research to tell us this because so much of it is so recent - that you can - your brain is damaged by simply being close to an explosion. And there's really two kinds of brain damage when you think about traumatic brain injury, TBI, which is a bit of a buzzword now. Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of it. There's the concussion problem, which is what happens to football players and hockey players and boxers, and it happens to soldiers too. And that's when your brain comes to a sudden stop and smushes on the inside of your skull. And that happens in traffic accidents and such.

But then there's a more insidious part, which is that explosive waves are a lot like sound waves. They're compression waves. And so when they travel through a medium, they speed up or slow down depending on how dense that medium is. So they move relatively slowly through the air and then they speed up, say, through the wall, or they speed up through a car. They also speed up through your head. Anywhere that there's a change in density, there's going to be sheer ripping forces and tearing forces.

Every nerve ending and little fiber and little bump and nodule starts moving at a different speed as that blast wave moves through your head, and so you tear things internally. And if you go through a single traumatic event, if you get - if you step on a land mine or an IED and you lose your leg and that detonation is so close, you can have a single instantaneous traumatic event that does a lot of damage. But if you blow something up every day, it's more like occupational exposure. It's like playing guitar too loud in a band for years, except you're not just losing your hearing. You're losing - you’re losing short-term memories. You're losing long-term memories. You're losing the ability to make decisions. There's sleep apnea problems that come from it, a lot of sleep disorders. There's just a lot of little insidious things, and it's a spectrum of problems and I'm very lucky that I'm on one end. But all of my brothers in the EOD world, we all have some variety of this from having blown so many things up over the years.

GROSS: Before you went to Iraq, you wrote a letter to your sons in case you didn't make it home. And you say that that letter is in a safe in your home. You haven't read it since you've gotten back, and you don't even remember what you wrote. So I guess I'm wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven't read it.

CASTNER: You know, as a bomb tech, you don't spend a lot of your life being scared, but I'm scared to read that letter. I don't want to read it because I don't know what I put in. And I'm afraid - I’m afraid that it's going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don't make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I'm gone, it'll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can't throw it out unless I read it first. And since I'm too scared to read it, it's still sitting there.

GROSS: Well, Brian Castner, I really, I want to thank you doubly. Thank you for this interview and for all you've told us. Thank you for your service to the country. Thank you very much.

CASTNER: Thank you. It's been an honor to speak to you.

BIANCULLI: Brian Castner led an explosive ordinance disposal unit in Iraq. He was on FRESH AIR in 2012 after his memoir, “The Long Walk,” was published. His new book is about the death of his friend Matt Schwartz, who was also an EOD technician and who was killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb. The new book is called “All The Ways We Kill And Die.” About the letter Castner wrote to his sons before he was deployed to Iraq, he tells us that he ran across it the other day. It is still in his safe and it is still unopened. Coming up, “Here, Bullet.” Army veteran poet Brian Turner reads a poem he wrote while serving in Iraq in 2003. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're observing Veterans Day by honoring those who have risked their lives serving in the military. Brian Turner is a poet and a veteran, having served for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was a team leader for the first Stryker brigade to be sent into combat in Iraq in 2003. His book of poems about the war is called "Here, Bullet." Terry interviewed Brian Turner in 2008.


GROSS: Let me ask you to read the title poem from your collection "Here, Bullet."

BRIAN TURNER: Sure. (Reading) Here, bullet. If a body is what you want, then here is bone and gristle and flesh. Here is the clavicle-snapped wish, the aorta's opened valves, the leap thought makes at the synaptic gap. Here is the adrenaline rush you crave, that inexorable flight, that insane puncture into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish what you've started. Because here, bullet - here is where I complete the word you bring hissing through the air, here is where I moan the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have inside of me, each twist of the round spun deeper because here, bullet - here is where the world ends every time.

GROSS: When you wrote that poem, which side of the bullet did you think of yourself being on?

TURNER: It was coming towards me. And that poem has a lot of bravado to it. And I think that's really just the fear masking itself. I'd say about 80 percent of that poem is fear. And then there's 20 percent of sort of an ugly psychology of finally wanting to meet that moment because, so often, as an infantry soldier, what I actually experienced wasn't direct combat but was indirect attacks against us, roadside bombs, snipers, mortar attacks - those types of things.

GROSS: Did you write that poem while you were in Iraq?

TURNER: I did. I wrote this book while I was in Iraq, except for two or three poems. It's one of the fastest poems I've ever written if you discount, like, 20 years of study prior to that. But I wrote it while listening to the Queens of the Stone Age, this rock band...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TURNER: ...And as sort of wallpaper music so I couldn't hear people outside. And I wrote it. And it's verbatim what it was when I wrote it. And I took it. And I folded it up. And I put it in a Ziploc bag. And I carried it in my chest pocket the rest of the time that I was in country. And it seemed sort of like a talisman and an acknowledgment of where I was.

GROSS: Brian, I know you're completing a new book now. Are you still writing about combat in Iraq?

TURNER: I'm actually writing about what I feel is missing back here. I was trying to write poems that were in Iraq, the poems that I'd started over there but never were finished. And I found that they weren't working. And I realized that, you know, of course, I'm no longer there. So I can't write those poems. But I started looking around and seeing that, you know, we're a country at war. But disturbingly, I don't see war, like, in Marfa, Texas, or Fresno, Calif., where I'm from. I'm not seeing it in my daily life. I'm not experiencing. And yet there are these sort of imagistic rhymes all around us.

I went into Lowe's Home Improvement Center, for example. And I was buying some nails. I started looking at them. I realized that there was a type of scaffolding nail, a double-headed nail, that looks a lot like the firing pin inside my weapon that I used to carry. And then, like, when you go to the register and you pay for the cash, and the register slides open, that shuh-shuh (ph), that sound when it slides, sounds a bit like a machine gun being charged. And the fan blades above - you know, they're imagistically rhyming a bit with the rotors of a helicopter, for example.

So these are the poems I'm writing now. I'm writing about the soldiers that have come back. What is that experience like for us as we come back? And then, what is the experience like as a nation? It seems to me a bit obscene that we can bury so many people in the earth and yet know so little about them. And that's what I'm writing about now.

GROSS: Brian Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.

TURNER: Oh, no, it's an honor. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Brian Turner speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His book of poems about the war is called "Here, Bullet." His latest book, a memoir about his deployment in Iraq, is called "My Life As A Foreign Country." After a short break, we'll hear from two more war veterans, Kayla Williams, who fought in Iraq, and Robert Kotlowitz, who fought in World War II. And film critic David Edelstein will review "Arrival," the new movie about aliens from outer space. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. We’re observing Veterans Day today. Kayla Williams was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as an Arabic linguist assigned to a signals intelligence team with 101st Airborne. She enlisted in the military in the year 2000. Her friends were surprised. When she was younger, she’d been part of the defiant punk scene. Her memoir about what it's like to be young and female in the army is called "Love My Rifle More Than You." She writes about the terror, tedium and camaraderie of war and about being a young woman serving alongside lustful young men. Terry's interview with Kayla Williams was recorded in 2005.


GROSS: You write in your book that you knew you were there to help people in Iraq but you often felt like you were hurting them, or at the very least that they perceived it that way. And you write - you write about the tension of wanting to help the locals but having to do battle with them. You say you even pointed your weapon at a child.


GROSS: What was the circumstance that made you feel you needed to do that?

WILLIAMS: We were on a convoy. At this point, we didn't even have doors on our vehicles. We didn't have up-armored Humvees at all in my unit. And we would remove the doors so that we could have better use of our weapons. The way that people drive in Iraq is very aggressive, and people will try to pass you by driving down the middle of the road, like the grass between the two sides of the road. And sometimes people will cut between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you, and then somebody will come out of the trunk and throw grenades at your vehicle or pop up and shoot you. And I was in the back seat behind the driver. And there was a vehicle driving very aggressively to our left on the grass, trying to cut in front of us. And I had no idea why they were doing this, if they were just in a hurry or if there was an actual threat. And I'm motioning to them with my weapon to stay away from us, to not get too close to us, to not try to cut us off. But they were continuing to drive very aggressively. And I was raising my weapon into the aiming position because it was a very intimidating and intense moment. And then the passenger turned and looked at me, and it was a child. And I immediately lowered my weapon. I was horrified. I felt very guilty, and I waved at him and he waved back. And it was - it was just one of those moments when I felt this intense disconnect between what we were supposed to be doing and what we were actually doing and the difficulty of trying to protect yourself and my colleagues and having to try to make a difference in people's lives at the same time.

GROSS: You write about being a young woman with young men, men who are mostly away from women except from the other soldiers in their unit. Can you talk a little bit about how men who you were working with related to you as a sexual being?

WILLIAMS: It varied so much, and it was so interesting to me when I could have the distance to look at it from outside almost and watch what was happening. And I definitely noticed that the men that I went out with in Iraq on combat patrols who saw me doing a service that was incredibly useful to them, when I translated for them between the soldiers and the civilians, which is not my job but I did with pleasure, they always treated me as a soldier. And even months later when they would see me, they would say, hey, you were our linguist in Baghdad. They always remembered me for my ability to do a job that was helpful. But men who did not get to see me doing a useful job and saw me infrequently definitely thought of me as more an object or just a girl - hey, you were that chick that was with us in Najaf or (laughter) something like that - and very much would sexualize me and the other women that I worked with, coming up to us and offering us coffee or just wanting to talk, just wanting to talk to a girl. And then the guys on my own team, the guys that I served with and lived in the same truck with and was with every single day, it just disappears in a sense almost. They're more like your brothers or close friends. You see them constantly. And it's funny because they almost don't want to acknowledge that you're a girl (laughter) because they work with you so closely. I remember at one point up on the mountain they said don't stand where the wind blows the smell of you to us right after you've taken a shower when you actually smell like a girl in America.


WILLIAMS: We don't want to smell your lotion or your shampoo. Go - go away.


WILLIAMS: Because they had gotten to a point where I didn't seem like a girl but that was such a poignant, forced reminder.

GROSS: What are some of the ways that you feel you were changed physically, emotionally, in terms of what you want out of life by your service in the military and the time you spent in Iraq?

WILLIAMS: I'm stronger. That is the biggest and most obvious change is that I know my own strength. I know...

GROSS: Physically - are you talking about physically or beyond physically?

WILLIAMS: Both - physically and mentally and emotionally. I know now that I can handle myself in a crisis. I am tougher than I ever knew that I was. I can handle extremes of temperature and deprivation of - in terms of sleep and physical comforts in a way that I had no idea that I would be able to not only handle but handle fairly well. And I know how privileged we are in America. We are just desperately privileged. We have so much, and I have so much more of an appreciation for how much we really have, how wealthy we are as a nation.

BIANCULLI: Kayla Williams speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. Coming up, we'll hear what it was like to serve in a foxhole during the second world war while under attack by the Germans. That's after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're going to conclude our Veterans Day salute by replaying a portion of Terry's 1999 interview with Robert Kotlowitz, who wrote a memoir about his experiences as a soldier in the second world war. The memoir is called "Before Their Time." Kotlowitz describes his experiences as a college student drafted into the infantry in 1943. After basic training, Kotlowitz, who was Jewish, was sent with the 26th Division to the French countryside to fight the Germans when he was 19 years old.


GROSS: I want you to describe what it was like for you to be fairly new in the war and living in a foxhole.

ROBERT KOTLOWITZ: Well, the first thing was that it was very scary. What was threatening was that we were facing German troops across a no man's land that was perhaps 200 yards wide, if that. It was a very static period in the war, not unlike World War I. And the tension that built up by just staying in a foxhole and unable to get out unless you were called for night patrol or were sent back for food and ammunition to replenish what you didn't have - that tension was really awful. And as a kid, I was really very scared.

GROSS: You describe how the Germans would taunt you through a megaphone. So what were some of the things they would say?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, they would first tell us that Franklin Roosevelt was a chew, as they called it - C-H-E-W. And they would tell us that New York had been flattened by German bombers and Seattle wiped out by Japanese bombers and that the Statue of Liberty had been sunk - you know, things like that. Things that you knew immediately were hilariously false and that had no effect on us at all.

GROSS: What happened in the first few seconds when you and the rest of your troop got out of your foxholes?

KOTLOWITZ: What happened was that we formed a diamond formation. It was the whole platoon. And the leader of the platoon, Francis Gallagher (ph), moved out very quickly to the head of it. And we started across that no man's land. It was still dark. And at the first break of light, we were moving up those rises. And the head of the diamond was already at the top and almost over when the Germans had us with machine guns. They took us with a sweep of machine guns and mortar fire and then rifle fire and grenades. And our platoon lieutenant, Francis Gallagher, was shot within 10 seconds of our ascent of those rises. He was shot through the neck. Probably both carotid arteries were destroyed at the same time. And he was gone. The rest of us fell instantly against this assault of so many weapons. And I don't know how many died in the first assault or how many died in the second assault. But the assault went on for the entire day. And this was 6 in the morning. By 6 in the evening, there were only three of us left alive. Two were wounded. One was unwounded. And I was the unwounded one.

GROSS: How many men were killed?

KOTLOWITZ: I never really got the figures straight. But I would guess it is 37 or 38 - maybe even as many as 40.

GROSS: You survived by playing dead for about 12 hours. The Germans were walking around with guns, picking off people who appeared to be alive but wounded. How did you play dead for that long?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I just want to say that they were not walking around. We never saw the Germans. They stayed in their foxholes, if that's what they were occupying. And they had formed a semicircle into which we had walked. That's exactly what happened. And they surrounded us on three sides. They did not have to appear. They just had us perfectly. And I survived by just - I began to count very, very slowly in order to get my breath slowed down so that I would not be breathing in a normal way. And that's what I did for several hours. And I lay there for 12 hours without moving. And that was it - hoping, in fact, that I might get a kind of respectable wound that would enable me to concentrate - you know, wound in the thigh - the fleshy part of the thigh area - so that I could concentrate on that and forget about my own anxieties. I had the feeling that if I were wounded, my fear would lift and disappear. I would've gotten it.

GROSS: As you lay playing dead in the mud, you were listening to your buddies die. What did you hear?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the sounds that I heard were the worst sounds I have ever heard. And I do feel that the sounds of war are the worst part of it. I heard young men screaming in terror and pain, calling for their mothers in some cases, which is the saddest call of all, some of them speaking in a language I had never heard, including my friend, who I shared the foxhole with. He was grunting a kind of animal-like way all day - violently thirsty. I could not get him any water. And those sounds were almost worse than the sounds of the machine-gun rounds and the grenades and the mortars and the snipers. It's unbearable to hear people you have trained with for months and months - to listen to them die in a helpless way and be unable to give them any help at all.

GROSS: What was the first scene you saw when you picked your head up out of the mud?

KOTLOWITZ: It was a kind of litter of bodies, most of which I knew were dead, and three upright, young Americans wearing Red Cross armbands carrying two stretchers.

GROSS: You must've had such conflicting emotions when you emerged - the exhilaration of having survived and the agony of having lost just about everyone who you trained with.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I was in terrible shock, although part of me was functioning in a very clear way. I mean, I could - I saw everything that I saw, heard everything that I heard and processed it the way I normally did. But my system was in terrible shock. I no longer was afraid. When I stood up and spoke to the medic and then helped the third medic carry this - the dead GI back, I was no longer afraid. I mean, it was about 500 yards to company headquarters. And we made - I made that move feeling just - exalted is not the word. But it's not far from it. I think I was running on the last of my adrenaline and that it was getting me to the end and that when I got company headquarters, it sort of vanished again. And I began to shake and tremble and - all the things that you do when you're in shock. And that's how I felt when I got out of there.

GROSS: Now, you're Jewish. You were fighting in the French countryside against the Germans. Your dog tag had an H for Hebrew on it. And you write in your memoir about how you'd lie in your foxhole and wonder, well, should I maybe take these dog tags off? Say I get captured by the Germans. And it says right here I'm Jewish.

KOTLOWITZ: Yes (laughter). It was something that, for a short period in combat, worried me. And I thought, if I were captured, would I go to an ordinary, conventional PW camp? Or would I be sent to a special camp for Jewish soldiers? And I finally decided my dog tags were the only thing that really identified me and that I would wear them the way everybody else was wearing them. And then I discovered just a year ago that there actually were those camps in which Jewish soldiers who were captured were sent to do kind of slave-labor work. And I had no idea that that really was going on at the time.

GROSS: Do you think, in that sense, that the Army made a mistake in identifying your religion on your dog tags?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the identification was really intended for burial purposes. I mean, if you're going to be killed during the war, then the Army wanted to bury you in a way that was faithful to your faith, assuming you had a faith. But you had to have some kind of identification. You couldn't say I was an A for atheist. And I think, given the time - given 1943, 1944 - there was probably no choice in the matter. I mean, soldiers were identified on their dog tags by religion just as they were by their blood type.

GROSS: Now, the publication of your memoir - your book was first published in hardcover a couple of years ago. It's just come out in paperback - has coincided with this whole revival of interest in World War II from "Saving Private Ryan" to the Tom Brokaw bestseller "The Greatest Generation." And I'm wondering what you make of that revival of interest and the way it's being treated.

KOTLOWITZ: Well. I think most of it began on the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, which was about three years ago. And I think people began to suddenly be aware that the veterans of World War II were beginning to disappear. I mean, considerably more than half of the men and women who served in the United States armed forces in the war are dead. So the real memory of it is going. And I think people are becoming conscious of that. I've had hundreds of letters about this book. And a significant strand of letters comes from the sons of World War II veterans who had died who had never spoken to their sons about their experiences because that's not what you did. It's not what you talked about at the dinner table with your kids. And they're now desperate to try to find out how their parents - how their father - lived.

GROSS: I want you to describe what it was like for you to be fairly new in the war and living in a foxhole. Robert Kotlowitz, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KOTLOWITZ: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Robert Kotlowitz speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. He died in 2012 at age 87. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 620,000 are still living. Coming up, they've arrived. David Edelstein reviews "Arrival," the alien-invasion film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.