Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fallen Heroes, Iraq War 03/19/03

Stephen William Castner

Cedarburg, Wisconsin

July 24, 2006

Age Military Rank Unit/Location
27 Army Spc

Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

 Killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his HMMMV during combat operations in Tallil, Iraq.

A Memorial Day Memory
by ethnicmike on May 31, 2010
It’s Memorial Day, which has me thinking, remembering, and a little bit sad. Today is a day that we reflect over those we’ve lost due to war, and this hits closer to home than I ever would have thought. Almost four years ago, we lost a friend in Iraq. A dear high school friend of Dad-oo and a friend that I became “Aunt Allison” too. In memory and in honor of Stever, I asked Dad-oo to share a little bit about him:
I’ve never known anyone like Stever before and I doubt I’ll meet anyone like him again. He was one of my best friends and the most loyal person I’ve ever known. My first vivid memory of our friendship is when Stever walked up to me in the hallway freshmen year of high school and casually jabbed a pencil into my arm. The pencil entered on the outside of my right arm in the tricep area. I remember that detail because the graphite is still quite embedded in that exact location and very visible. How is that a friendship memory and not an “assault victim” memory? Well the next thing Stever did after retracting the writing utensil out of my limb was to smile and yell out “Hey Mikey!” as if this was a very normal greeting and after the initial spike of pain receded I remember treating it as such. We resumed discussions as normal, I don’t even think we talked about the pencil attack at all. I call it a badge of honor though thinking back I’m still not sure why he thought that was an appropriate greeting or why I agreed with him. Probably the same reason I thought it was appropriate (and hilarious) to send him a basket of beef jerky and licorice after his jaw was wired shut following a surgery.
While most kids our age spent their time watching sitcoms and sports (or whatever we did to avoid being intellectually stimulated), Stever watched history and military documentaries, The West Wing and played hours of Command and Conquer. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me when he joined the Airforce and shipped off to Wyoming to become as he put it “a glorified 911 operator for nuclear missiles”. It did surprise me though. Stever joining the military wasn’t an idea I could grasp at that time. I didn’t understand his motivation or how his mind worked, I guess I was just stuck in the “college is what you do after high school” mode. The military was just that staff sergeant (Irwin, Staff Sergeant Irwin was his name) that called every once in a while and attempted to goad us into joining the army so the commies wouldn’t take over. I wish I could tell you that I learned anything at all from the time Stever joined the Airforce to the time he enlisted in the Army National Guard, but I can’t. Especially considering the high probability of deployment to Iraq.
There’s no way I have the time or space to review all of my memories of Stever in this one post so I’m going to focus on the one thing that relates most to Memorial Day and what I learned (and continue to learn) from it. Steve was killed in action 5 days after arriving in the Middle East on July 24, 2006, as a result of injuries sustained from an IED detonating under his vehicle. I got the call from a friend while I was at work and after the initial denial stage I was devastated. I can’t even imagine the impact on his family, Steve was an only child. Stever’s life was celebrated at a packed memorial service with great speeches from his family and friends. The service was concluded by a full procession of bagpipes. In case you didn’t think a group of bagpipes could sneak up on anyone, think again. The several of us facing the back of the auditorium saw them walk in, the others (and there were many) never saw it coming. The emotional resonance of 10 or more bagpipers belting out surprise Amazing Grace is indescribable.
So after all of this, after the pain and the grief and almost 4 years later thinking about Stever on a near daily basis, I think I may have also learned something. I never said I was smart but I occasionally pick up on something if it’s right in front of me for years. Stever was a defender. There aren’t many of them, and maybe we need more but Stever was doing this to defend his country and the people in it. The people who can’t or won’t do it for themselves. The people who’s idea of a “warrior” is the guy who puts on pads and a helmet and tosses a ball around for a couple hours every week. The people who celebrate being free and safe by taking it for granted. The people who considered military service about as long as they considered building a raft and shoving off into the Atlantic ocean after high school. Me.
It took me a long time but I better understand Stever’s “go hard or go home” attitude, his “shut the ____ up and do it” mantra, the feeling that he couldn’t relate to civilian life after coming home, and the anguish he felt (and displayed) at so many people’s lack of perspective, especially those who bashed military members because they were more interested in partisan bickering and shaky ideals. I say “better understand” because another thing I learned is that no matter how much I tried to empathize with Stever, I could never understand what he went through or what he was going through. Not without doing what he did or having his perspective on life. So on Memorial Day the best I can do is remember and be mindful. Remember my dear friend and what he did for his country and be mindful that I at least try to be a civilian who is aware.
I would say Rest in Peace Stever, but I think that’s the last thing you would want. Cause some damage wherever you are.
Thanks for listening. Happy Memorial Day.

Soldier, scholar, mentor
Posted: July 26, 2006
Mike Nichols

When Steve Castner gave his mom a list of books he wanted last Christmas, they were all about the Middle East – which was not at all out of character.
He was a voracious reader.
It first became clear in third grade when he got the chicken pox. Laid up for three or four days, she remembers, he devoured probably 30 books about American history.
It wasn’t but a couple years later that he started to read the newspaper, read so many books and magazines that it started to interfere with eating and sleeping. Maybe even, later on, with his grades.
He never cared much for report cards, says one of his good friends, Matt Kennedy. But “he had a valid, arguable opinion on everything. The guy was a genius.”
He was just the opposite, the fact is, of somebody going to Iraq without a clue of the bigger picture, without belief.
Steve was home on leave just three weeks ago and, said Kennedy, seemed happier and “more centered” than at any other time in his 27 years. He wasn’t just going off to Iraq, he was going to make the military a career.
“The last thing I said was, ‘Hey man, be safe.’ ”
“Hey,” Steve replied, “you know me.”
A lot of people around here did.
Steve Castner grew up in a Cedarburg family that everybody seems to know. His mom, until just last month, was a long-time math teacher at the high school. His dad is an attorney and specializes in land-use and development issues.
Steve developed an interest in those things as well, studied at both the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Steven’s Point. But he had served in the Air Force for four years right after high school – was stationed in Wyoming and helped monitor ICBM missile fields in the western states – and missed it.
His life, he felt, was elsewhere.
When he joined the Guard last year, it took him a couple months to tell his parents. They support the war, if not the way it has always been carried out. But that is a hard thing for any parent to hear.
We are sitting on the porch of their home, and yellow ribbons line the drive. His mom, Kay, has, for now at least, dried her eyes, staunched the sobbing.
“He told me he missed it,” she said, “that he missed the military, that part of his life. He was afraid of what we would say.”
When Steve was in the Air Force, he spent much of his time in a high-security, underground facility that, his dad said, “looked like something out of a Tom Clancy novel.”
He had skills in communications and electronics that you’d think the military would need right now. Instead, it became clear, he was going to be used in Iraq in a very different way.
He was told they needed people to protect supply convoys. His parents, being parents, were, frankly, horrified.
Steve Castner didn’t have to join the Guard. Didn’t have to go to Iraq. Didn’t have to even think about it.
He’d had a good job in IT. He could have stayed close to one of the quaintest and most comfortable little towns in America. It would have been easy.
And it wouldn’t have been him.
He wasn’t your typical macho warrior. In a group of people he did not know, says Kennedy, he could actually appear introverted. But that’s not quite the description either.
“He knew how to have a good time and make people laugh,” said Mike Lohmiller, another Cedarburg High School friend. “And that was a big part of his personality.” Lohmiller describes him as having a “fantastically impish nature.”
It is clear from e-mails his family has received since his death that he was looked up to by younger Guardsmen; he had an understanding and a perspective, a maturity some of them may not.
Still, his mom and dad did not have a good feeling. Maybe it was just the normal apprehension of his parents, maybe it was something more concrete, concerns about security and equipment and training that his father, Stephen, raised, long ago, with his congressman, F. James Sensenbrenner.
If Steve Castner himself shared that apprehension, you’d never have known it.
“Steve,” said his dad, “took it in stride. I know he was anxious but he was determined to be the best.”
He understood, says his father, “the pivotal nature of the Middle East,” and whether or not he had any misgiving about strategy or safety, “he was motivated and he was going to go do his job.”
His job was far more dangerous than any parent would want to know. A member of the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery in Milwaukee, he died the other day when a bomb detonated near his Humvee in Tallil, Iraq.
Part of everyone’s disbelief is that he died on his very first mission. It was just three weeks ago that he was sleeping in his bed at his parents’ house, having a beer at Wieslers Saloon with Kennedy.
Kennedy, himself a weapons test engineer for the Navy who lives out in Maryland, says he was in his car when he was told the news and about drove off the road.
“He just got there,” he said. “There was no way,” he says he thought, “no way he died on his first mission.”
But then, he says something else as well.
“I have no question in my mind,” he said, “that he died or was killed being where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do and in the way he wanted to do it.”
Since Steve was killed, says Kennedy, he has been talking to other friends and they have shared a truth that they have always known.
Steve, says Kennedy, “is the kind of guy, if you are friends with him and he with you, he would take a bullet for you.”
More than a bullet, in fact. And for more than just his friends.

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