Joshua Casteel helped Derry make a difference

Joshua Casteel.
Joshua Casteel.

Joshua Casteel spent only a day in Derry but it was a day that made a difference. I learned last week of his death in New York five weeks ago, aged 32.

Joshua had stopped off in August 2006 for a meeting at Sandino’s, part of a tour organised by the Irish Anti War Movement. It was following his talk that a decision was made to occupy the Raytheon plant at Springtown - leading eventually to the departure of the “merchants of death” (Joe Brolly) from the city.

The meeting had come three days after the bombing of an apartment block in Qana in southern Lebanon by Israeli jets using Raytheon Guided Bomb Units (“bunker-busters”). Twenty-seven people huddled in the basement were blown to bits or crushed to death. Even now, the image of a grief-stricken rescue worker stumbling from the rubble carrying a dripping bundle that was all that was left of a baby is seared into many minds.

Joshua had enlisted in the US Army Reserves at 17 and won a place at West Point Academy the following year. After taking a course in Arabic, he was posted to the notorious “debriefing centre” at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Within a year, he had declared himself a conscientious objector and was discharged.

Back in the US, he became active in the anti-war movement, as a member of the Catholic pacifist group, Pax Christi. He served on the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War and published a memoir of his days in Iraq, “Letters From Abu Ghraib”.

Joshua was slightly-built with tousled hair and serious glasses and looked a lot younger than his then 26 years. I recall our surprise when he walked into Sandino’s. We’d billed him as a “veteran”. He looked like a child.

He spoke of growing up in a middle class family in Sioux Falls in South Dakota, joining the military to “do good”, believing in the mission when sent to Iraq and then experiencing a transformative conversion during the interrogation of a detainee.

The moment is strikingly conveyed in the documentary “Soldiers of Conscience”. You can google the clip.

Joshua wasn’t a brilliant speaker in the sense of throwing off fiery phrases. But his gentle persuasion engendered the buzz of moral fervour which powered the decision for direct action.

I kept in touch with Joshua off and on in the years since. An email every now and again. He was a never-ending campaigner, taking his inspiration from his understanding of the Christian gospel without ever disrespecting the irreligious approach of some of the rest of us.

In April last, Joshua received the 2012 Catholic Peace Ministry’s Bishop Dingman Peace Award. He was aware at the time of the approach of death. He’d been diagnosed in November 2011 with stage IV cancer (adenocarcinoma) in his lungs, liver, spine and adrenals. It is not mawkish to say that his acceptance speech was magnificently moving. Again, you can google it.

Joshua spoke regularly in churches, colleges and at conferences about the Raytheon action in Derry and its result, carrying the message to campaigners in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

It wasn’t so much that he made a difference to Derry as that he helped Derry make a difference.