Stephen William Castner
July 24, 2006
Killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his HMMMV during combat operations in Tallil, Iraq.
A Memorial Day Memory
|Soldier, scholar, mentor
Posted: July 26, 2006
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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