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Local author of 'Long Walk' aims to bridge civilian-military divide

A gaping civilian-military divide exists in the United States. Only a small percentage of Americans serve in the armed forces, and many civilians have little awareness of veterans or those serving. serving.

Brian Castner, a Buffalo-born military veteran and memoirist, helps bridge that gap with his writing.

“It’s my job to help get you into those shoes and see what it feels like,” Castner said. “I think war is something people do, like raising kids and getting cancer and going fishing and moving.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to bridge that divide like everything else. It’s just another human experience.”

Castner has a powerful story to tell – and has drawn considerable praise from the literary world and from fellow soldiers for the insightful, honest and compelling way he has done so. The Grand Island resident served as an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the Air Force from 1999 to 2007, commanding bomb disposal units in Iraq two of those years.

His first book, the 2012 “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows,” recounted harrowing wartime experiences along with the excitement and camaraderie of doing a dangerous job. It was also about the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered, and how military service changed him.

Castner’s second book, “All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for his Killer,” which he calls a “crime story,” came out in 2016. It tells of the hunt for the Western university-trained electrical engineers who travel the world teaching terrorists how to make bombs, and how little is known about them.

Castner will speak about his experiences as part of “Two Soldiers’ Stories: Lebanon, Iraq & Back,” being held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave. Sponsors include Just Buffalo Literary Center, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo and Burchfield Penney.

Appearing with him will be Matti Friedman, a former reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press. Friedman’s most recent book, last year’s “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War,” was nominated for the Hilary Weston Prize, Canada’s top literary award for nonfiction.

Castner – an admirer of Friedman’s work – said the former soldiers, while sharing a lot in common, will discuss the ways in which their war experiences differed.

“We are going to talk about just how different it is being a soldier coming home in Israel, as opposed to being a soldier coming home in the United States,” Castner said.

“How frankly bizarre it is to fly back to the United States after a war, compared to the 20-mile bus ride home that Matti took from the front lines in Lebanon. There is no civilian-military divide there. It’s a drastically different homecoming. That’s the kind of contrast we are going to be talking about.”

Castner had low expectations starting out as a writer. He didn’t expect to find a publisher, and didn’t expect the book to be successful.

“I considered them all delusions of grandeur,” he said. “I felt the need to get my own story right, and to do the best job I could, but also really only expected to print out one copy and stick it on a shelf.”

As it turned out, the critically-acclaimed book landed Castner his first interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air."

He now mentors other military veteran writers. Castner is the editor of a short-story collection that came out in January, “The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forgotten War,” featuring perspectives on war from 25 new and established veterans.

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