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A Veteran's Piercing True Story Leaps From Page To Stage

<em></em>Iraq veteran Brian Castner (center) poses with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann and composer Jeremy Howard Beck, who are adapting Castner's PTSD memoir, <em>The Long Walk,</em> into an opera at New York's American Lyric Theater.
Steven Meyer
Courtesy of the American Lyric Theater
Iraq veteran Brian Castner (center) poses with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann and composer Jeremy Howard Beck, who are adapting Castner's PTSD memoir, The Long Walk, into an opera at New York's American Lyric Theater.

Iraq veteran Brian Castner wrote a book about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder for his kids, so they could someday know what he'd been going through when he came home from war.

"The first thing you should know about me is that I'm crazy," Castner writes in the opening passage of his 2012 memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows. "I haven't always been. Until that one day, the day I went crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore."

Castner discovered that he'd lost many memories of family life, perhaps from repeated exposure to bomb blasts. The book, a chronicle of making peace with the changed person he's become, was well-received, and Castner is working on another. It also brought some surprises — including an offer to turn his story into an opera.

"The book is very musical," says Stephanie Fleischmann, the librettist of the opera version of The Long Walk. "It's very fragmented in terms of chronology — it's all the interior of Brian Castner's mind. He uses refrain over and over again; that is already a very musical form."

Fleischmann collaborated with composer Jeremy Howard Beck, with the sponsorship of the American Lyric Theater in New York. Beck says he was drawn to telling a story about the Iraq War because of what he sees as a dangerous disconnect between veterans and civilians.

"I've heard the attitude that unless you are a veteran, you can't understand what these people have been through. I don't think that's benign," Beck says. "You take a group of people and you isolate them and tell them that most people will never understand what they've been through. If I can do something to dismantle that idea, I would like to."

The opera also highlights the perspective of Brian Castner's wife: Beck and Fleischmann did extensive interviews with both Brian and Jessie Castner while writing the piece. One aria depicts Jessie asking her grandmother how to treat a husband who is coming home from war:

He won't come home, my grandmother said
The war will kill him, he's good as dead

Accompanied by sparse and haunting guitar and piano, she relates her grandmother's response:

I hope for your sake he dies over there
Because if the war doesn't kill him, it'll take him here
The war will kill him at home

In the opera, Jessie vows that that won't happen, that she'll keep the family together. But later, when she finds her husband sitting for hours outside their sons' bedroom holding a loaded gun, she realizes that the man she married did not come home.

Brian and Jessie Castner got to hear the opera as a work in progress at a special preview performance this summer in New York. Jessie says the opera got quickly to the heart of their family's experience, something that she says it's taken years to explain to her family and friends.

"You'll get this assumption: 'I bet you're so glad Brian's home safe and everything's fine,' " she says. "Why would you assume that everything's fine?"

The opera overlaps scenes of the Castners eating dinner with their children with scenes of Brian Castner and his fellow soldiers in Iraq. A military funeral scene overlaps with a scene from domestic life, as a military widow sings a duet with a military wife.

"There was a feeling of grief and loss in our family, and it was the death of our marriage as we knew it," Jessie Castner says — though she says it smiling, with her husband standing by her side.

For his part, Brian Castner has seen his book become a story he no longer controls as it morphs into a modern opera. Castner is pleased at the thought of connecting the military world and the opera world.

"There's this huge gulf between the average civilian community in the United States and veterans and the military," he says, "so this opera doesn't have to reach the military. If it reaches people that might never have been associated with the military, then I think that's even more important."

The American Lyric Theater is planning to present the full score of The Long Walk sometime in 2014.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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