Almost ten years ago, I was a diplomat of sorts in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died. After twenty-three years of rule, his death came and passed with a short service and a quiet interment in a local cemetery. At the time, I joined the rest of the world with anticipation and foreboding. This was a different death, as far as important figures go, and in the end, I felt let down by it. I had such high hopes. I remember that other Americans in the country expected the worse. Some thought that when he died, we would all be kicked out of Saudi Arabia or the half-brothers would revolt or someone would strap on a backpack full of explosives and walk into a crowd in the center of Riyadh.
Over the previous months in Riyadh I had heard rumors about the King’s slow approach to death. And when news came early one Monday morning, the rumors opened up even more. The security level on the compound where I live was raised immediately. Leisure travel was restricted. My mom emailed from Kansas asking if I was going to the funeral.
But nothing remarkable happened. Nothing.
Driving downtown before the funeral, we saw a few more police and a little less traffic. We met with our Saudi friends and drank the usual tea. The only time anyone spoke of the funeral was when I asked about it. The oldest man in the office, a sergeant who reminds me of a creative writing teacher I had in college, said, “He was king, yes. But he is just a man. A man who died. No biggie.” He has a great sense of humor; “no biggie” was an expression he teased me about using. But that was his only comment, no eulogizing, no loud expressions of the late king’s politics or reforms, no predictions of doom or revolt.
It was an attitude that seemed to baffle CNN as well. During the short, televised service in a large mosque, the headline read, “Only dirt and a simple stone will mark King Fahd’s grave.” And after the funeral, it changed to “King Fahd laid to rest after simple service.” Just a simple service? Simple? Simple is no way to do anything these days.
I remember the media coverage. The cameras followed to the cemetery and the reporters tried to fill the silence. All they had was a crowd of robed Saudis and dozens of rainbow-colored umbrellas. There was little to speculate about. As the reporters reported on a crowd crowding around, the anchormen and anchorwomen seemed astonished this funeral was so quiet; so they filled up the silence with banter about whether or not George Bush Sr. had been invited.
Surely they were as disappointed as I. That’s not the way to bury somebody. Where are the sidewalks stacked with flowers and teddy bears? Where is the twenty-one-gun salute? Where were the foreign dignitaries and the detailed itineraries? When the pope died earlier that summer, CNN got shots of people lined up for miles to file past the late pontiff. They could see it from space.
The CNN live report of the funeral made one thing clear about Western culture. We desperately love individuality, and we fetishize catastrophe. We expect major cultural shifts whenever the faces of those who lead us change or when an African disease infects an American doctor. We love to place blame and recognition alike squarely on the shoulders of one man or woman be it Hillary Clinton, George Bush, or Barrack Obama. We love to attach significance to every situation be it questions about undeserved war medals or a stain on a blue dress.
I still remember crawling into my bed in southern Riyadh during the summer of 2005; I was comforted by the smooth acceptance of one man’s death by a country that depended so much on him. There’s something to learn there about confidence and faith and hope. And CNN’s inability to turn that into a story was the perfect monument to such a perspective. Dirt and a simple stone seemed about right. They still do.
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“Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying: Who shall I send? Who will go for us? I said: Here I am. Send me. Then I said: Until when LORD? And He replied: Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants, houses are without people, the land is ruined and desolate.” – Isaiah 6:8,11
Roger that…But what about when I get back? What about the dead? What about the wounded? What about the children? How can I look in the eyes of my own children, and not see the eyes of the other children? Why did I make it back and not my brethren? Why can’t I sleep? Why am I so angry? Why am I so scared and still fighting to survive? Why have people I love turned away from me? Why can’t I stop crying? Why do I feel like there is a giant black spider that comes out every night to suck the life blood out of me, and I’m tangled in her web? When is everything going to be OK again? Hello? LORD?
Brian Castner eloquently brings answers to some of these questions in his book The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Brian has walked the walk. The Long Walk. He knows the path well. Our brother has lovingly written down his story for all of us. Like Hansel and Gretel, we can follow the path of bread crumbs into the enchanted forest. Then when the ravens come, snatching up the bread crumbs, squawking “Nevermore!” tauntingly and fly away into the trees of the forest- we begin to feel what Brian has felt. We begin to know what he has known. We begin to see what he has seen. We can take a walk in his boots. The Long Walk.
If you love a Soldier, you need to read this book. If you love a Marine, you need to read this book…a Sailor…an Airman…whatever, you need to read this book. If you work with veterans, as a social worker, counselor, psychologist, doctor, nurse, caregiver…whatever, you need to read this book. If you are one of us, you have probably already read it, but if you haven’t, you need to bro. I found my copy at the public library. Yes, I know, I’m old school and went to the library or an actual book, not downloading an e-book or any of that gizmo stuff. That was six months ago. The librarian is pissed with me, ‘Cuz I won’t bring it back. I keep paying the fines, and then renewing it again. I read it from cover to cover, and folding down the corner of the pages when I connected with something Brian shared with me. Sometimes it’s at the top of the page, other times at the bottom, and quite often it’s both. So now I have this library book that follows me around. Sometimes I toss it in the back of my truck, meaning to return it to the library. Sometimes I lay it on the bed stand next to my laptop, meaning to write this book review. But I just couldn’t do it. Not until now. Brian’s story hit close to home. In fact, it’s like hitting a home run and sliding into home plate, just to kick up some dust and get dirty, even when you don’t have to, because you knocked it out of the park, Brian. I looked at his picture in the back of the book, and I was like Holy Sh*t! He looks just like me! Or I look just like him. We could be brothers. In fact, I feel like we already are.
“Don’t be afraid of the soft sand, Lieutenant!”
These are words of wisdom. The man who spoke them, The Chief, he’s dead now. But they will always stick with Brian, and with me. Now with you. You see, as you are doing PT, running your ass off in the mind numbing scorching heat and humidity to the point where you can’t breathe because the humidity in the air is like a water soaked sponge and there’s not enough oxygen in the nooks and crannies of the air to fill the alveoli in your lungs but you have to turn around and do another lap because the Chief is hounding your ass and molding you into the warrior you need to be and then you have to run up the big f*cking hill again and that’s when you hit the soft sand so you double and quadruple the calories in your furnace while the lactic acid squeezes through your calves, quads, glutes, and hams until your legs want to detach themselves from your body and bitch slap you for making them continue but then you start sliding back down the hill again because the soft sand gives way and you slip and roll and get grains of sand stuck all over your sweaty skin and you look like a damn donut with cinnamon sugar sprinkled all over you and the salt from your sweat stings in your eyes and you start going blind but just run uphill on the downhill escalator of sand and grunt and get pissed off and roar out your war cry and spit sand out between your teeth as you grind them together and step through your bleeding blisters and push through the f*cking kill zone until you get to the top. You flip the switch. Out comes the War Beast. As soon as you do you are going to punch the first enemy you see in the chest with your bayonet and butt stroke the next son-of-a-bitch in the face and spray the whole f*cking bunker with a full mag from your M-4, toss in a frag, and slap in another mag without thinking. Just doing. But do you have PID? Positive Identification of that enemy threat to justify your violent action? Shoot or don’t shoot? No time for that now, you must fireman carry Billy to the medics so he won’t bleed out cuz there ain’t no f*cking way your gonna let him die on you and the other guys in your squad need you right now cuz you have to scan your sector and somebody needs to call a 9-line medevac for Billy and somebody needs to stick him with an IV and somebody needs to bring up more ammo for the machine gun and the barrel is getting hot and the radio doesn’t f*cking work and there’s an IED in the road that can go off any f*cking minute and you need a grid coordinate to call in EOD and your taking fire from heavy weapons and you need to get some indirect fire and some air support coming in so now you have to turn around and do another lap…
“So don’t be afraid of the soft sand, Lieutenant.”
And then you come home. So now what? No, it’s not just like CALL OF DUTY, so shut up already!…Well, there’s green grass, and shade, running water, air conditioning, electricity, and a roof over your head. People are not actually trying to kill you. You can actually drink beer again. Eat all the pork you want, Infidel. Have a steak, eat a hamburger, get some tacos, go to a ball game, hang out at the pool. If you’re lucky, you can even get laid again, and be in love. You can even go back to your old job. Hope it goes well. You should talk to God. Thank him for your life, and your many blessings…ask for forgiveness…pray for guidance…a way, a path to follow, because now you are going to feel lost.
You are the same person, but you are not. You don’t FEEL the same. Are you starting to get it yet? That’s the whole point of this book, so you can get it, and start to understand. Brian was an EOD guy. You know, Explosive Ordinance Disposal. He’s the one the grunts call when there’s a bomb, kinda like 911 for warriors. So Brian was in the thick of it. Every day. Every night. Multiple times. You are probably thinking of that movie, you know, The Hurt Locker. That film does a nice job of sharing the Iraq war experience for an EOD Soldier. Towards the end, it shows him back home again, stuck- in the grocery store with his wife and kid, just staring at rows upon rows of cereal. Then it jumps ahead, to him going back, back, back to Iraq. It pretty much skips the home front. So this is where Brian’s book fills the gap for us all. It shares “A story of war and the life that follows….” You may have noticed a theme here; it’s about PTSD. He calls it his crazy. I personally don’t like this term. Anyone who has been exposed to the trauma of war and ends up with Post Traumatic Stress is perfectly normal. If not, then maybe you were crazy to begin with! But anyway, I understand why Brian just comes right out and calls it his crazy, people can relate to that. He wants them to be able to understand, to listen to the story, and to benefit from it. It’s about the family. It’s about 22 veterans per day committing suicide, and the reaching out with a loving hand to stop that from happening. Thank you, Brian.
There are really multiple meanings behind all of this. The Long Walk is literally the EOD’s last resort. After you’ve exhausted every possible approach, and if they don’t work, then somebody has to strap on the bomb suit, and take that Long Walk to go and diffuse the bomb by hand. It also refers to the Long Walk that every Soldier takes when they deploy to a combat zone, and never know if they will ever come back. It also means that Soldier’s Long Walk back home, struggling with PTSD and trying to return to some happy state of normalcy again. Then of course, there is The Long Walk of having to go back and do it again. Any one of these can ultimately end in The Long Walk that families must face at the grave side, reaching out to hold onto The Flag of the United States folded crisply in triangular form, from a grateful nation—with the tear wrenching shock-wave of the twenty-one gun salute, and the echoing of Taps.
For those of us who have made it back home, Brian does a superb job of demonstrating the need for a release, that search for a solution, a way to succeed and thrive. I call it the “search for the Holy Grail.” Like Percival, King Arthur, and the other Knights of the Round Table, we search the ends of the earth for the grail itself, if only to quench our thirst for peace. Brian finds one way through his running. It’s like a pressure release valve for him, and for me, so that he can let some of his crazy out, and perhaps be able to sleep for a while that night, and to stay focused and in control enough to function effectively at work, and at home for those whom we love and cherish. There are many ways, and paths to follow that are out there. Drugs and destructive behaviors lead only to a dead end. Instead, find multiple paths. As a wise 92-year old WW II vet told me, “Find many joys in life.”
For me, my faith is certainly a path to follow. But like Brian, I also have others. I started running. I started putting one foot in front of the other. I started moving out with a purpose to find a purpose. I struggled at first, but found myself back in the zone, and sometimes I feel like I’m running on a cloud. I ran my first marathon to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project and to honor one of my Soldiers who was wounded in battle. I made it to the finish line. There was no way I was going to let him down. There is, of course, the traditional route. Go to the VA, file your claim, take your meds, talk to your counselor. I’ve done all that, and still do, but there still is a need for more than that. Yoga. That’s working for me too. It makes me a better runner, more flexible, but also provides a routine, breathing, calming, healing…I joined Team Red, White, & Blue. www.teamrwb.org Hit the easy button. It’s free to join and you get a free kick*ss T-Shirt. But you get more than that. You meet local veterans just like you, and lots of friendly supporters, and you go out there and stay active and social, instead of isolating yourself. I ran the Tough Mudder with Team RWB and had a blast. It’s nice to feel part of a team again, part of something bigger than yourself, and to feel that camaraderie again. Do it all, just try it. You will find something that clicks for you—archery, biking, rowing, etc. Like in the Valor Games. Especially if you are physically disabled and were wounded, I know it’s hard for you to find that release, it’s not like you can just go running. But there are ways you don’t even know about yet. My buddy Ben Donovan, he was wounded and walks with a cane. He can’t run, but he does crossfit, and he tried rowing with Team RWB. He loved it. Next thing you know, they say, “Hey, Ben! Come here for a minute.” So he checks it out. When he looks down, he sees a new sprint row boat. Painted on the side, Ben Donovan, they named the boat after him! Goose bumps…Now he is a leader too, recruiting more veterans to get out there. So join. Find many joys in life. Team RWB, WWP, IAVA, VFW, AMVETS, AMERICAN LEGION, TEAM RUBICON, whatever. Continue to serve again. It feels good.
So I hope you find your Holy Grail. Keep taking The Long Walk. Keep stepping out with one foot in front of the other. Fooorwaaard..March!.
Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans. Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.