One of the most exciting events on the local literary scene last year was the debut of Brian Castner’s first book, The Long Walk, A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Brian’s book and personal story quickly rose to national prominence, with positive and prominent coverage by the New York Times, the New Yorker, a rare full-hour interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, a city-hopping book tour, and appearance at important venues and literary festivals.
Locals who have known Brian for some time in his former role as the reasonable-Republican (a rara avis) blogger for WNYMedia, the writer of Get Outside columns in Buffalo Spree, discusser of whitewater on Cattaraugus Creek and the Upper Genesee, and thoughtful tweeter knew he was writing a book. But we had no idea what it would be or the phenomenon, if I may use that word, it would become. As someone who knew Brian Castner before he was Brian Castner, I took a special delight, beyond the general hometown pride, in watching it unfold.
I was in attendance at his first local reading at, of course, the great Talking Leaves Books (covered by CSPAN’s BookTV), and one shortly thereafter at Canisius College. And after appearing all over the continent, it’s a treat to have him appear in Buffalo again, this Sunday. “I haven’t done a book event in my hometown since right after it was released last summer. So after talking to so many other communities, it will be nice to chat again with my own,” Brian told me.
Brian and his family go way back in Buffalo. A wonderful family story is how his grandfather, who was both a Buffalo fireman and parish council member of St. Ann’s, saved that church from a fire. When he responded to the fire call, no one on the scene could find a way into the church, but he produced the key to the church from his pocket. (As an aside, in this era of inner-city church abandonment, St. Ann’s may now be facing a bigger threat than a fire, and it’s up to all of us to step up to help save her.) Perhaps as a reflection of this heritage, after Brian’s military service, he served, in another way, as a volunteer executive director of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
It’s that military service and its aftermath that is at the heart of Brian’s book, his recent public appearances, and his talk this Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. Without giving away too much from the book, which you do, indeed, need to read (it’s relatively short, and gripping), Brian’s life was changed in ways neither he nor anyone else could have imagined when he became a bomb technician in the US Air Force. EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) is an elite, highly trained group of people who found themselves, over the last decade, thrust into a central role in conflicts marked by the rise of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Indeed, the book’s title is taken from “the long walk,” alone, that is sometimes required of an EOD technician in the bomb suit that figured prominently in the film, The Hurt Locker.
Although Brian made it home from war, some of his closest comrades did not. And although Brian thought he made it home in one piece, he found his life had changed in ways that led him to the revelation that he had, indeed, left some very important parts of himself in the war zone. Memories, especially, even of important moments like the birth of one of his children. And the person he used to be, who could wait for a plane at an airport without planning how he might have to shoot his way through the crowd to get to safety. He had to contend not just with the sights, sounds, and smells of war, experienced by generations before him, but with the new reality of armored soldiers surviving repeated concussions and explosions that could not be stopped from rippling through their brains leaving insidious, often cumulative damage in their wake.
Much of Brian’s story centers around how he grappled with these unexpected, unwelcome changes that are still not entirely understood (although the recent wars, as with all wars, are advancing knowledge of both the damage and effective therapies). Amazingly, he found one of the most effective therapeutic elements was the practice of yoga — age-old and as far removed from the idea of war as can be imagined.
Hence the holding of Brian’s talk this Sunday at East Meets West Yoga on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. As Brian told me, “yoga is such an important part of the book, but I hardly ever get asked about it at book events. Questions tend to be focused on the war, issues around traumatic brain injury, the backlog at the VA, and concrete problems about how to reach out to veterans. I appreciate the opportunity to talk at East Meets West because for me, yoga was the answer to a lot of those transition questions. It is not a cure-all — there is no such thing — but it was a big help for me.”
Veterans and non-veterans alike owe Brian a debt of gratitude for having the courage and gumption (two traits not lacking in the EOD Corps) to write about his time at war and struggle thereafter — and to do it so well. It’s a critical part of a national dialog and recognition of what our veterans will be facing in the years to come, and where the help is and needs to be. Just this week I attended a lecture in Rochester giving updates on research into childhood lead poisoning, which is revealing that the brain damage from that insidious disease may have a lot in common with the traumatic brain injuries received by our soldiers. So not just for our military veterans — but especially for them — better understandings of, and treatments for these conditions just can’t come quickly enough.
Book Discussion with Brian Castner: Author, Veteran, Yoga Student
East Meets West Yoga Studio
758 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222
Sunday, March 24th, 3:00PM – 4:00PM
Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, the chronicle of his two tours to Iraq as the commander of a bomb disposal unit, and trials returning home to his family after. He will talk about how yoga helped his recovery from the traumas of war, and discuss how to encourage more veterans to walk into a yoga studio for the first time.
Free. Brian’s book will be available for purchase at the event.