Hello reddit. I’m a writer and an ex-Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer. I did a couple tours in Iraq and my memoir about the experience, THE LONG WALK, came out last year. For WIRED's November issue I wrote a story about the Boston Bomb Squad's response to the marathon bombings.

You can read it here: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/10/boston-police-bomb-squad/

Here’s proof it’s me: https://twitter.com/Brian_Castner/status/393763646280454144

Ask me anything!

EDIT: Thank you for taking the time to ask questions. You can always hit me up on Twitter (@brian_castner) or my website (www.briancastner.com). Be well, Brian

Comments: 136 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

bearlybaked17 karma

How difficult is it for you to walk around town with those massive balls of yours?

brian_castner18 karma

I manage somehow.

EODpunk17 karma

What's the strangest thing you've ever seen an EOD operator do?

brian_castner34 karma

Take a shit on the side of an armored truck in the middle of a firefight in Iraq. Sometimes you just gotta go.

MikeGeiger17 karma

Can you please state for the record that it's NEVER about the red wire, or the blue wire?

... and too many guys are colourblind for that BS anyway ;)

brian_castner22 karma

Actually, I tell people that's the #1 rule of EOD work. ALWAYS cut the red wire. They usually laugh, and then ask if I'm serious.

Yeah, never red or blue, sometimes yellow or green, but bomb techs aren't allowed to be colorblind (for other reasons having to do with identifying ordnance), so if every bomber in the world went to a standard system, it would actually help.

MikeGeiger11 karma

Well there goes that career aspiration.

brian_castner15 karma

Sorry bro - you wouldn't be the first guy to fake the test, though.

CanadianGladiator11 karma

Hello Mr. Castner! Three questions for you:

1) How do you feel about movies like The Hurt Locker?

2) If you could talk to the President and give him one piece of advice, what would say and why?

3) Do you have any hidden talents?

brian_castner17 karma

1) The Hurt Locker is a mixed bag. Who wouldn't want their job to be portrayed in a movie that wins the Academy award. At the same time, we don't do a lot of the dangerous things that guy does; we're not cowboys with a death wish - we lose too many guys as it is. So its 5 minutes of realism up front, 5 incredible minutes at the end, and Hollywood in-between.

2) I'd ask the President to sit down with the EOD guys in his Secret Service detail, the young enlisted guys just back from Afghanistan, and ask them what them what's really going on over there.

3) I'm a mad whitewater raft guide.

EODpunk7 karma

I'm on a boat motherfucker! Ever fall out?

brian_castner8 karma

Nearly did once, and a fellow EOD guy dragged me back in. Cold cold day - that would have been a rough swim.

jaxinator11 karma

How does it feel having Johnny Knoxville and Jared Leto right behind you in the AMA queue? It would make me feel...tingly... mmmmm

brian_castner21 karma

I'm actually kinda mad I'm missing Knoxville.

ReclaimerSpirit9 karma

Afternoon, Mr. Castner. Thanks for doing this AMA. These are the kinds of AMAs I like to see. A few quick questions:

1) How often did you use a bomb disposal bot? How would you describe your relationship with them? Like, did you give it a name or what?

2) How did you know where to look for an IED? I've heard roadkill and general debris are signs to look for. If you don't want to talk about that stuff, were you taught what to look for and what to expect, or did you learn a lot on the job?

3) what would be your nightmare bomb?

brian_castner6 karma

1) We used one as often as we could. In Iraq, this was nearly every mission. We had big armored trucks back then, though, so we had the space. Now that so many missions are done on foot in Afghanistan, its harder to use the robot every time (though there is a new bot that fits on a guy's back - the SUGV). We have some of the robots names, not all of them. Some guys always wanted a certain lucky robot, but that was superstition, and we felt that way about everything - a lucky electronic jammers, lucky crimpers, lucky underwear.

2) Both, we learned on the job and you were taught. But anything you were taught would be out of date quickly, since the bomb emplanters were always learning new methods. Honestly, though, we only ever looked to keep ourselves safe. Meaning, we'd get called for one IED, and when we arrived we'd look for more. But the engineers and infantry had to walk the roads and look for the original IED in the first place.

3) The worst IEDs are the ones near people that I can't evacuate. If there is a "nightmare" bomb in an open field, its an easy day. But put a simple bomb in a crowd and its tough to deal with. Another reason that the Boston bomb squad had such a hard time - they were searching for additional marathon bombs in the middle of the runners and wounded and first responders.

ReclaimerSpirit3 karma

Thank you so much for your answers. This is the first time i've gotten a response from any AMA, and I found your answers really interesting and enlightening.

Final follow up question if you have the time: You've mentioned how unpredictable and creative IED makers are. That being said, are there any trends you found in the design or placement of bombs in Iraq? Common locations, common mechanisms, etc.?

brian_castner3 karma

Oh sure, we spotted lots of trends and standard designs. Many of the bombs came from centralized factories or single bomb makers that mass produced them. And once a cell knew they could place a device on a certain road in a certain place at a certain time without getting caught, you'd find one there every day. That's about specific as I can be in the answer, though, without revealing exactly what the designs were or how they worked.

clarkdever9 karma

In your research and experience, what are the differences in the roles of military and civilian explosive ordnance disposal technicians?

brian_castner21 karma

Military guys go to a longer school and learn about all kinds of ordnance, from hand grenades to nukes. The civilians go to a shorter school and focus on IEDs, but in some ways, have a much more delicate job once they start working. They are protecting Americans in American cities, have a lot more ownership over the place and the people than a military guy does working in a foreign country. The Boston PD bomb techs told me over again how responsible they felt that a bomb went off at the marathon. They said their job was to stop that from happening in the first place. I never felt like I could stop every bomb from going off in Iraq.

mre10209 karma

How many IEDs have you disarmed?

brian_castner10 karma

Honestly, I don't know an exact number. On my second trip to Iraq my teams ran 900 total missions. I probably went on 50 or 100 of those. Not all of those were live IEDs of course. But on a normal day, we did a couple. There are plenty of guys who have done far more, and went back way more times than me. They're still going back - I did 2 tours, some guys are on 8 or 9.

yeahboi7826 karma

out of all of those how many did you have to go hands on with?

brian_castner11 karma

Maybe 1 or 2. And that's typical - only in Hollywood do you pull out your knife first. Which is why what happened in Boston was so remarkable. Those 12 guys - the Boston PD and FBI and state troopers - on the scene of the bombing did hundreds of hand entries in an hour. Even though they found nothing else, it was an incredible thing.

mre10206 karma

That's crazy, I've never heard of an EOD officer going hands on with an IED before. Did the team leader freeze up?

brian_castner8 karma

No, 4 of us on a team, driver behind the wheel, robot operator still driving, team leader did one part of the job, I did another. Its not my first role, for sure, but if you're there and it needs to be done, you do it.

ChrispyK9 karma

One of my close friends is pursuing a career as an EOD officer for our local police force. He's currently dating the daughter of a retired EOD squad captain. What advice can you give my precariously positioned friend?

brian_castner8 karma

Yeah, that's a tough spot right there, and I don't envy him. At the same time, I've never met a guy who could live up to the expectations of his girlfriend's/wife's dad. So he'll never be as good of an EOD tech as his maybe father-in-law, and maybe shouldn't try. Better to leave work at work, though we EOD guys are terrible at talking shop all the time, no matter who is around or where we are.

chauinc9 karma

What was your biggest mistake on the job?

brian_castner8 karma

I got fired on my first trip to Iraq. I write about this more in the book, but I thought I knew better than the generals I worked for, I pushed the limits, got caught, and lost. So I got sent home, which was a bigger punishment than losing rank or something else, because I wasn't with my brothers in combat anymore. I had let them down.

PooTossingMonkey9 karma

Did you ever meet one of the bad guys, ie one of the guys building an IED or planting it? If so what did you say to him?

brian_castner15 karma

That's an interesting question. I met a lot of bad guys (and by met, I should say, saw them flex-cuffed and waiting to go to jail), but never the guy who actually built the bomb. I met people getting paid $10 to put them out, the guys storing them, the guys caching AK-47s in their dirt floors, and plenty of guys we thought might be bad guys but weren't. But the one who actually knew how to build the bomb and did it was always a mystery. That's actually partially the subject of my next book, trying to track that guy down.

As I think about it, the closest I ever got was one suicide bomber who drove a car bomb into a Kurdish police station. He was dead, and the bomb was intact, and I was close enough to look into the hole in his head. That's the way that war was.

Qaher-3138 karma

Do you yell at the TV when people disarm bombs in movies?

brian_castner13 karma

I laugh, usually. Better that TV and movies constantly get it wrong, though - we'd rather the general public not know every detail about how to build bombs or take them apart.

vScarleton8 karma

How many fire fights were you in? Having watched Bomb Patrol on E3, and a few other documentation videos, etc. I haven't seen many, but I'm just curious.

brian_castner7 karma

There was gunfire nearly everytime we went out in Iraq. But it was our security's job to shoot back while we took apart the bomb. So usually you just tune it out and do your job. They're only shooting at you because you happen to be there, in that part of town. Once you leave, it'll stop, and it was mostly pot-shots or sporadic.

Things are very different in Afghanistan, by the way. Guys there now are in sustained firefights, ambushes, attacks on their FOBs and fire bases. The mujahideen in Afghanistan have very different tactics than those we fought in Iraq, and they aren't afraid to stand and fight or assault your position.

LoveWhatYouFear8 karma

As an explosives expert, what do you feel is one element which should be considered regarding design of new construction buildings to mitigate (or completely prevent) the effects of an explosion.

brian_castner10 karma

Those old nuke considerations of time, distance and shielding apply to regular explosives and buildings too. But what we've discovered is that distance is way more important than shielding. Concrete blast walls can turn into frag, so instead of trying to put physical barriers between the bomb and what you want to protect, better to keep the building as far as possible.

LoveWhatYouFear4 karma

stand off distance.. okay, I figured that would be a top suggestion.

What about in urban applications, where that luxury likely does not exist?

brian_castner8 karma

Still better to reinforce the target rather than put up blast barriers. So stand-off first, then a hardened building, mylar glass, then finally the big T-walls.

clarkdever7 karma

What's the closest you've come to turning into "pink mist"? (edit: space)

brian_castner12 karma

I had one IED in Kirkuk in 2006 where I was WAAAY too close. That's nothing special, everybody in my job has many of those, but fortunately there was an armored truck between me and the bomb that was encased in a concrete block. I write about this is the book, but it split our robot in half and showered us with frag. Fortunately the truck caught the stuff that would have killed me.

SeaHawken7 karma

Have you experienced any PTSD since retiring? - Thanks for serving and saving so many of our soldiers lives!

brian_castner9 karma

Not to ruin the end of my book, but I don't have PTSD. I have something I call the Crazy, but technically it doesn't fit the PTSD diagnosis - you need to have 8 of 12 things in the DSM handbook, and I only have a few. So I have issues but we all have something, or are changed by going to war. How can you not be?

jaxinator6 karma

Alright Mr. Castner, here is one for you. During your time as an officer in the military, have you ever had to deal with subordinates who have done something so utterly stupid it has blown your mind? For example, has a young Airman ever got so black out drunk during a range clearance mission that he ended up wandering the halls of the only hotel in town completely naked? And let’s say that at the same time he is also spitting on the floor, for no reason at all. Now while he is doing this, a long-haul trucker who is looking for a quiet place to rest comes into the hallway and is utterly stunned at the free show included with his hotel room. Lucky for this young Airman, the trucker is not in the mood for some young, tattooed, drunk military guy’s anal virginity. So the trucker goes and tells the hotel staff that there is a naked, drunken guy on the second floor. Now, of course the motel staff has to deal with this. So the nice old lady that everyone knows and loves comes upstairs to handle the situation. Upon opening the door to let the drunken Airman in, she discovers the room to be covered in fecal matter in various locations. The bathtub is just about to overflow, as it has been clogged with toilet paper. Her only reaction is to say “Oh…my…God…” and turn off the water in the tub. She quickly exits the room, and shuts the young Airman in. Once again, the young Airman’s anal virginity is safe as she wanted no part of that ridiculousness.

Hours later he is awoken by a very angry (and rightfully so) team chief, who is amazed that with the amount of fecal matter in the room the young Airman is completely shit-free. Now there is a bit of paperwork to do. So this young Airman receives a letter of counseling (thankfully it was his first dumb mistake). The letter of counseling states the usual about personal responsibility, being an idiot, don’t get that drunk, etc. but also states “Due to the lack of feces on Airman ********’s body and bedding, it may not have been him.”

What is your take on this situation? Was there a ghost that pooped everywhere? Pardon the pun, but was it a shitty setup? Is this young Airman so good at drunkenly pooping that he managed to do it everywhere but on himself? Are there mysterious forces at work here? Aliens? Or perhaps EOD technicians just go a bit crazy sometimes and things end up a bit…messy?

brian_castner5 karma

Hmm, I do remember something similar to that happening one time. Sounds like a 1/1,000,000 shot. Crazy stuff like that just happens sometimes. See: Pulp Fiction.

jack476 karma

Do military EOD guys find much use for the portable x-ray equipment? If so, how could it be improved to make it more useful/better?

brian_castner8 karma

Good question. When I was a young EOD tech, we planned on x-raying everything. We also planned on doing suspicious boxes and bags in the United States. Once the wars kicked off and there were IEDs everywhere, we didn't have time to X-ray, and it has sat on the shelf since. Its not that it's big and heavy (if you're in a truck - if you're on foot it fills your backpack quickly), its that it takes a long time to use and forces you to approach the bomb several times. In a normal combat situation, that's just not feasible.

LuigiWasRight6 karma

Hi Mr Castner, I have a simple question for you: You have obviously done some stuff that would terrify the average guy, so what scares you?

brian_castner5 karma

Not being in control. Many of us EOD guys are a little OCD and have control issues. I wouldn't do anything taking apart a bomb if I didn't think I'd live and it would work. Same with jumping out of airplanes or whitewater kayaking. I'm in control. Giving that up and putting my life in the hands of another (non-EOD guy, I'd trust nearly every bomb tech with my life, cuz you do when working) is what bugs me. Like rollercoasters, and being in airplanes in bad weather where I'm not in the cockpit.

mister_smee5 karma

Did you ever feel like you weren't going to make it out of a situation?

brian_castner4 karma

Sure. My first trip to Iraq we were by ourselves (big no-no) and wrecked our Humvee in the dark. So we were alone and stranded and heard gunfire getting closer. That sucked for a good long hour, until the cavalry (literally) arrived.

buffalopundit5 karma

The EOD work you describe in your book differs significantly from the work you describe the Boston bomb squad doing in your Wired piece. Which do you consider to be more difficult or challenging?

brian_castner5 karma

The challenges are different, but the "pucker factor" for the guys in Boston was worse than anything I have ever experienced. I've never stood on a street with 100 potential bombs and knew I had to take a knife and cut into each one by hand. So, no, they weren't getting shot at at the same time (often happening in Iraq/Afghanistan). But they were working in their hometown, in their own city (and Boston breeds its own intense set of loves and loyalties, right?), they aren't wearing bomb suits or armor (at first), they aren't using robots, they are doing so much by hand, and they are thinking very very quickly because they are surrounded by victims. Oh, and the bomber may in the crowd and putting more out. I've never done that scene before.

rdt1564 karma

What do movies and tv get wrong about what you do and how you do it?

brian_castner5 karma

Movies and TV always make it look like we're cowboys, and eager to work by hand. In reality, we always use robots and try to stay away if we can.

slapknuts4 karma

How inacurate are movies' portrayal of bomb dismantling, is it really cut the red wire you win, cut the green wire you're fucked, etc.?

brian_castner2 karma

Nope, not at all. Though I do have a friend that has the email [email protected]

commonlounge4 karma

Whats it like to diffuse an explosive compared to Hollywood?

brian_castner11 karma

Hollywood tries to make it exciting every minute, when in reality a lot of work on an IED is long and boring. We're very methodical, and there are many long minutes just waiting for the robot to do its job. So its that old saying about war: long stretches of boredom broken up by seconds of sheer terror.

ToothHurty2304 karma

Hello. What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

brian_castner3 karma

The hardest part of being an EOD commander was telling families that their loved one was hurt or killed. The hardest part of writing about EOD work is similar - you're immersed in intense emotional events (like casualty notifications, describing someone losing a leg or drowning) for months while you research, write and edit the story.

Chrisberndt4 karma

What's the worst site you've ever seen

brian_castner8 karma

Kids are the worst, not matter how many there are. I've done post blast investigations where dozens of people died in the car bomb blast, but add just one kid and it pushes it over the edge.

[deleted]3 karma

[deleted]

brian_castner5 karma

Live every day like you're going to die. Cuz you are. When you go to war you take a giant bite of the tree of knowledge, and you'll never look at life the same way. PS That all sounds cheesy, but its what I do.

Cheines3 karma

As somber as it was, and my heart goes out to all of the victims of Boston Marathon bombing. The idea of using a pressure cooker as an IED was quite shocking to me, a layman. In all of your experience, has there ever been an IED you or your team came across that you were flabbergasted by the ingenuity of the creator?

brian_castner5 karma

There is an old saying that the types of IEDs one can make are only limited by the creativity of the bomber. A pressure cooker is the perfect container for an IED - it is solid construction, easily holds the explosive, and isn't too big or heavy. So its pretty typical. Usually the really creative IEDs don't work, and its the boring reliable ones that do all the damage. The exception to that was the IED that almost killed me (I answered a question about it in the thread here somewhere) - it was in a concrete block, and used the baffle out of a car door as the trigger to make it go off. So when our robot lifted it, it detonated. Took us a long time to figure out what the trigger was for that one.

Vmoney13373 karma

Has anything ever went horribly wrong?

brian_castner6 karma

Oh, all the time. You realize plenty quickly that luck saves you plenty of times, not your own knowledge and skill. Some EOD guys have the saying: I'd rather be lucky than good. I had a team drop their Humvee into a canal in Iraq. They started to sink and couldn't open the doors because they were on their side and they were too heavy. They were just lucky that their Army security team could pull them out in time. I think the Boston PD Bomb Squad and Mass State Troopers would tell you that in some ways they were just lucky that they didn't trip another device on the day of the bombing. Your skill only takes you so far.

aximperator3 karma

Hi Brian - how did you end up getting involved with WIRED?

brian_castner9 karma

I pitched a story! After the marathon bombing, I was talking with Matt Higgins, a writer for Outside and the NYT. He said: "you have a perspective about this others don't. You should write about Boston." I noticed right away that after the Tsarnaev brother was captured, no one paid attention to what actually happened that week, it was all pseudo-psychology about why he did it. I thought that there was a story there to be told, about what the guys did on-scene, the tick-tock of it is what writers call it. I thought Wired was a good place to do it, and fortunately they agreed.

EODpunk3 karma

What were some of the defining factors for you to get off the high speed train of the career field and pursue writing full time? Was it a hard transition? And do you still keep on touch with your friends and counter parts in the field?

brian_castner6 karma

I was about to get divorced. EOD does stand for Everyone's Divorced, and not just Explosive Ordnance Disposal. So I had motivation to choose - it was going to be one or the other. I think I chose well, but it was tough, because EOD provides tremendous meaning and a sense of purpose, and I didn't have anything to fill that right away. I had no guarantee I'd ever find anything as meaningful. Its tough to be 29 and realize you've already done the most important thing you're ever going to do. So writing filled that for me, and I find it just as meaningful as EOD work. And I do stay in touch to the EOD alumni network, as I call it. You can do new work, but in some way, the most important way, you're always an EOD guy. Its still a blessing and a burden, because just cuz your war is over doesn't mean anyone else's is, and you stay home while they go back.

United_Hairlines3 karma

I worked with EOD in Iraq back in 2002. The week I spent with those guys was probably the most fun and memorable experiences of my time down range. So my question: Were you able to find work pretty easily when you got out? How much of your past experience and training plays into what you do now?

brian_castner4 karma

After I got out I went to work for a military contractor teaching Army and Marine EOD techs before they deployed. I did that until I started writing full time, and now I'm still writing about explosives and EOD guys. So for me its direct. A lot of guys have that experience (staying in the careerfield, so to speak), but a few guys just want to go do something completely different too. EOD can really define your personality, though, so it can be a tough transition.

jdaher3 karma

What kind of tools do you mainly use for EOD? Most advanced tool?

brian_castner7 karma

EOD guys use tons of technology - x-rays, robotics, armored trucks, electronic jammers. The most advanced, or newest, are probably the jammers. But it also turns out that a great way to disassemble IEDs is to use explosives yourself, and so while it might not look fancy or high-tech, there is a lot of thought and research that goes into developing explosives and then figuring out how to use them in different ways.

EvilTech51502 karma

Ok, remember the movie The Stand and Trash Can Man? Supposing that such a character does light up a tank farm, and in this case a plague has not hit(just to clarify), what sort of containment/procedures will be involved? Do you let the firemen deal with the tank farm and look for other bombs, or what?

brian_castner2 karma

I wish I could answer, but I've never seen either movie. But obviously I should.

EasyDay2 karma

What was the most difficult part of EOD training, and how did you push yourself through it?

brian_castner6 karma

The start, and the first time I failed a test. Its such a firehose of information (to use the cliché), and it takes a bit to get adjusted to the speed of testing and learning. I failed my recon test, the last test in the initial Core phase of training. It was a good thing I got it out of the way early, because mentally preparing myself to go back and take a "do-or-die" test helped me get through the rest of school.

page_mathews1 karma

[removed]

jaxinator2 karma

B-Ri... The EOD community needs this answered.

brian_castner3 karma

No, I'm not ticklish - don't get any ideas.

brian_castner1 karma

Thank you - I appreciate that. Nothing used to make me laugh, but you know that since you read the book. Now, its when my wife crosses her eyes and makes this one funny face. I can't help it; I belly laugh every time.