NEAL CONAN, HOST:
If you saw the movie "The Hurt Locker," you probably can't forget that scene at the start where a soldier puts on an 80-pound Kevlar suit and takes the long, lonely walk to diffuse an unexploded bomb. True enough, according to Brian Castner, but life as a bomb tech involves a great deal more, rushing in to investigate the scene of a bloody car bomb even as grieving relatives pull out the pieces of their loved ones and also ordering someone else to don the bomb suit and take that lonely walk.
Castner spent years an explosive ordinance disposal officer at the U.S. Air Force, commanded an EOD unit in Iraq and wrote a book called "The Long Walk: The Story of War and the Life that Follows." If you've worked in bomb disposal, we want to hear from you: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Brian Castner joins us now from member station WBFO in Buffalo. Thanks very much for being with us today.
BRIAN CASTNER: Thank you, Neal. It's an honor to be here.
CONAN: And as - a lot of people who saw that movie, including me, think, well, maybe I have some insight into the life of a bomb tech. What did we not get?
CASTNER: You got a little bit of it. You know, the beginning was excellent and the ending even more so, but a lot in the middle was Hollywood. There's, you know, the job is already so dangerous. We don't take off the bomb suit to get more comfortable. We use every tool in our disposal, robots and mine detectors and a lot of other things to really be as safe as possible, and we still lose too many guys.
CONAN: And it was fascinating. There was a lot of that investigating various bomb makers. You did that as well but almost starting from scratch. Nobody was trained in that.
CASTNER: That's right. That wasn't originally part of the job, so to speak, or at least not a focus of the job when we invaded Iraq in '03. The first time I did one of those bomb, you know, post-blast investigations, I had to ask what I was supposed to do. And gradually we've gotten much better at it, and in fact, in the years we've been working on that, we have, you know, crime labs, well, before in Baghdad and now in Kabul. And it really is an extremely professional process and it's how we eventually catch the right guys and get bombs off the street now.
CONAN: But it turned into this sort of leapfrog. The EOD guys on the American side would figure something out. The guys who built the bombs would try something else.
CASTNER: That's right. And unfortunately, I wish I could say that a lot of times, we were disassembling the IED so that way it wouldn't go off. But the truth is, in - when I was there in '05 and '06 and this continued to be true for a while, we were doing investigations far more often than we were actually safing the IED, unfortunately. For example, when I was in Kirkuk in '06, we had a couple of months where we had a lot of car bombs, 49 of them went off and there is only one of them that we managed to disassemble before it detonated.
CONAN: And it sounds like there's, well, nothing for you to do, but you have to go into the scene of that car bomb, as we mentioned earlier, and try to figure out what happened.
CASTNER: That's right. You're looking for any little shred of evidence. And of course, as you're arriving, there's ambulances, there's police. They're trying to remove remains or remove the wounded. And you're looking for some tiny little bit of wire or some fingerprint or some DNA sample, perhaps, that might have been left over from the bomber to try to build this database of evidence. And it's challenging. You sometimes wonder, you know, what am I doing here? What good is it doing? And when you do this every single day, all you're doing is, you know, you're seeing the people of Kirkuk on their worst possible day.
CONAN: And it's not in the context of a, well, secure the crime scene. Put that yellow tape around it and we're going to work this inch by inch. That's not it at all.
CASTNER: No. And like I said, sometimes half the evidence is already picked up before you get there, even if you get there in just a couple minutes. And then, of course, you're, you know, you're getting shot at. If you stay there too long, you're worried about mortars being dropped on your head. If there was one IED there, there could have probably, would be several more. And so it's a very rushed system. You have 10, 15 minutes to get the most you can. When I train guys to do this I would say, you don't have time to get everything, but hopefully you have time to get the most important thing.
CONAN: We're talking to Brian Castner, an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the U.S. Air Force who served in Iraq and wrote a book called "The Long Walk." If you worked as a bomb tech, we'd like to hear from you: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike is on the line calling from Denver.
MIKE: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Mike. Go ahead, please.
MIKE: I am fascinated by this, and I love that movie. I served in Vietnam with the combat engineers. And our role - one of our roles was, every morning, to mine sweep a portion of Highway 1, which was a dirt road. Each night we'd have to come back in to a landing zone and lock the gates. And then the NVA or VC had run of the road and we'd frequently plant what we called landmines or booby traps. And these were made out of bamboo. The triggering devices were bamboo. The explosives were taken from dud 750-pound bombs that were dropped by the American B-52s. And they managed to scrounge batteries and blasting caps and put these things together.
So each day, we'd have to walk the dirt road. We'd walk five miles each day in each direction and look for just small bamboo plungers in a dirt road. We missed a lot of them. But with the year I was there, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, I pulled 12 of them out of the ground myself. And it was harrowing. And I think now, I think back and there is no way I would do that any more.
MIKE: But my question for the government is why don't we develop some technology that helps soldiers find these things? We can put something on Mars. We can developed these drones that have pinpoint accuracy, but we can't find a 30-pound bomb in a road. It just baffles me.
CONAN: Brian Castner, not as easy as it sounds.
CASTNER: Well, in some ways, not a lot has changed from Vietnam. We're still doing that. And, you know, the funny thing about some of our previous wars like World War II, when there's a frontline and you're advancing, when you take the bridge, the bridge is now taken. And because of the way we patrol now, when you go back to the base at night, you retake the bridge every day, so to speak.
But to the caller's question, we have a variety of technology that does fine things. We have mine detectors and we have robots and we have ground-penetrating radar and we have aircraft. And we have just - I mean, just a huge variety of these tools. As fast as we develop a tool, the other side develops a way to hide it from that tool. And so there is this - there is just a constant, well, cat-and-mouse game, I guess, as you described it before.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.
MIKE: My point is that these tools we're developing are not very effective at all. And I think that such a technologically advanced country, we could be doing a lot more to protect soldiers from basically homemade bombs.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mike.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mike. And Mike is on the line with us from San Antonio.
MIKE: Hi. How are you doing today?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
MIKE: I just wanted to bring up a fact - especially since the movie came out that you've referenced - that I'm not sure if a lot of members of the public know that, at least while I was in, I was in the Army as an EOD technician - that we have the additional role of supporting some of the more civilian entities, such as the Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as working in combat.
CONAN: And how did that - what did you in that regard?
MIKE: For the Secret Service, VIP protection details, all of the presidential candidates that's we've had the joy to follow for this extended period before the election. All had Secret Service protection, which, at least when I was in, included EOD technicians, for example.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. That's interesting. I hadn't thought of that. But that seems like part of the job, yeah, when you think about it. And, of course, that needs to be part of the job. Mike, after - how long did you spend doing bomb tech work?
MIKE: Six years.
CONAN: And what did you learn at that end of that time?
MIKE: I think the biggest thing that I take from it - I'm a fair piece down the road now - is that the training that's required to become an EOD technician is extensive and it's very rigorous. And a lot of the things I learned about self-discipline and reliance and teamwork has carried me over and served me well since I got out of the service.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Jim. Jim is with us from Franklin, Tennessee.
CONAN: Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIM: Well, I was fortunate enough to command the 14th Ordnance Detachment, EOD, at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in the late '80s. Fortunately, I served in peacetime, and I had the privilege of working in an environmental cleanup with the Corps of Engineers on Martha's Vineyard. We cleaned up a World War II practice range that airplanes shot rockets at and the beach erosion caused the warheads to pop on the public beach. And we spent three months on the island cleaning it up.
CONAN: And what did you do with the warheads?
JIM: The dummy ones, the practice rounds were sold for scrap. The Corps of Engineers tried to make some money out of it. And the live ones, we blew them up in place.
CONAN: And was this dangerous work?
JIM: It could be. We never knew when you're digging on one if it was live or practice until you actually uncovered it and got your hands off.
CONAN: Interesting. That's interesting work, Jim. Thanks very much for the phone call.
JIM: Thank you.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, Brian Castner, you said the start of that movie was very good and the end of that movie. And the end, of course, is when the character played by Jeremy Renner has so many emotional difficulties.
CASTNER: That's right. And when I talk to people, you know, I was just at a book festival this weekend and we talked about it a lot. Everybody that I speak to, their favorite scene is his inability to buy cereal. And to me, that - I mean, it struck me too. I agree it's, you know, when you're faced with all these life-and-death decisions every day, you know, Cocoa Puffs or Rice Krispies doesn't quite rise to the challenge.
And it - and that's kind of really emblematic of the challenge of coming home and reintegrating into civilian life and trying to figure out what matters. And if nothing seems to rise to the challenge, then you start to see everything as being as important as that life-and-death work, and it can be really challenging for guys to reintegrate.
CONAN: And challenging for guys to reintegrate, but also the amount of damage, that can't be laughed off. You experienced probably hundreds, maybe a thousand explosions and memory loss is, well, one of the problems you've got.
CASTNER: It is. And I'm very lucky. I am on the low-end of the scale of traumatic brain injury, TBI. But yeah, there's an occupational exposure issue. And it's not just bomb techs. It's anybody that's been exposed to blast after blast after blast. It's a little bit like playing in a rock band and you turn up the, you know, the volume too loud just over and over again. You're going to lose you're hearing. But that occupational exposure to blast can cause memory issues, either long-term or short-term, sleep issues, hearing issues.
There's a lot of non-specific symptoms that when you put them together, you start to wonder what's wrong with you. And for me, there is a little - well, there's a lot of frustration and that there are some things I remember really, really well; six car bombs going off within 15 minutes. But there's other things that I've lost. My children's first steps, meeting my wife, a lot of things like that.
CONAN: Brian Castner, thanks so much for sharing your story. Appreciate it.
CASTNER: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Brian Castner joined us from WBFO, our member station in Buffalo, New York. He's a retired EOD officer, the author of "The Long Walk: The Story of War and the Life That Follows." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.