CEDAR RAPIDS — Years after a Cedar Rapids veteran died of lung cancer those close to him believe was caused by toxins from the burn pit at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Joshua Casteel’s story still is being told as an example of confronting war with love.
Casteel’s background is complex. The Washington High School graduate, who died in 2012 at age 32, was an Army interrogator inside Abu Ghraib, a public speaker, a divinity student, a peace activist and a playwright.
“I’m happy that his message and the message of his life is getting out there,” said Casteel’s mother, Kristi Casteel, who lives in Cedar Rapids and is the director of the Joshua Casteel Foundation. “That was his goal and purpose. We all talk about wanting the end of war. The only way to do that is take steps in the right direction in thinking about what it means to love our neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to look at others as valuable as we are.”
He had a saying, his mother said: “What would it look like if the same determination we used to defeat the enemy was used to redeem the enemy?”
Casteel is the subject of a lengthy profile in the most recent Smithsonian Magazine titled “The Priest of Abu Ghraib.” The article is part of special January-February edition focused on the United States’ 17-year war on terror.
Joshua Casteel learned of his deployment weeks after the revelation of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib. At the time, the protestant evangelical turned Catholic had been accepted into seminary but opted to fulfill his military service.
During his time in Iraq, fellow soldiers would come talk to Casteel. They started calling him “Priest,” Kristi Casteel said. His conscience was challenged by working with soldiers and being part of war.
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“He was questioning for some time the philosophical and theological aspects of violence and war,” she said. “He was thinking through it for several years before Iraq and thought about chaplaincy. ... He carried a reputation with him. He interacted with people on a deeper level. Joshua was always very open and vocal about his faith, so his spirituality was just well-known.”
Joshua Casteel went to war in 2004 in the Army’s 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion, but he filed for and was granted an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector in 2005.
He became active in the anti-war movement. He enrolled in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and took part in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He wrote and performed in several plays and penned a book called “Letters from Abu Ghraib.” He later attended the University of Chicago Divinity School.
He died in New York City while seeking an experimental treatment for cancer.
In addition to the Smithsonian Magazine profile, his message is being retold in other forums.
“Returns,” a play written by Casteel that captures experiences of a military interrogator, is being performed in Holland, Mich. Another director in New York had been working with Kristi Casteel to take the play on a circuit as a workshop, although that is on hold, she said. It is also being performed as an opera in the United Kingdom.
Jennifer Percy, who wrote the Smithsonian article, is working on a screenplay about Casteel.
“I don’t think America has fully processed the consequences of the war in Iraq,” Percy said. “Joshua is someone everyone can turn to for knowledge and understanding. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, Joshua’s story is a way to help us reckon with history.”
Percy met Casteel when they were both at the University of Iowa. She wanted to see the war through his eyes, she said.
“It turned out he was a great interrogator, not because he was cruel, but because he was incredibly empathetic and kind,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to learn from that.”
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