The Last Patrol: Q&A with Sebastian Junger

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What does it take to return home from war?

Sebastian Junger spent 20 years covering violent conflict as a journalist and worked on the acclaimed documentary Restrepo, which he filmed over several months with a U.S. Army platoon fighting in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley. His latest film, The Last Patrol, which opens this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival on Thursday, October 23, is about the fraught transition from the front lines to civilian life.

The Last Patrol follows Junger, Afghanistan combat veterans Brendan O’Byrne and Dave Roels, and war photographer Guillermo Cervera as they hike from D.C. to Pennsylvania along train tracks while camping outdoors, dodging Amtrak police, and grappling with what it means to come back from the combat zone. Junger, who will be in attendance and part of a post-screening conversation on Thursday, recently answered a few questions about the film.


The Last Patrol begins with a conversation about the allure of combat—and about George Washington falling in love with the sound of bullets in his first firefight. Why open a film about returning from war with its enduring thrall?

Because one of the main things soldiers have to get through is missing the war and missing the combat. George Washington is just an early example of something that’s extremely psychologically complicated for vets today, and I wanted to make that point. It’s easy to think it’s the video-game generation, they go to combat and get hooked, that it’s a modern problem. It’s not.

Your group included two soldiers and two journalists. Everyone has deep scars from their experiences, but the soldiers seem to miss the war more—the structure of the armed forces, the camaraderie of combat. Is that the case?

Yes, and no. What’s not in the film is that Guillermo went back to combat [to cover conflict in Ukraine]. But also, the two journalists—myself and Guillermo—are older. We have full developed adult lives. For soldiers, combat comes at the beginning of assembling a meaningful life back home. It’s hard for their lives to compete. As you get older, it's more of a fair fight. But while I’m glad I'm not doing the stuff anymore, I miss it a lot.

In the film, you tell the civilians you meet that you’re trying to get to know America again. But you do that from the very edges, dipping in and out of various communities. Why?

We were voluntarily vagrant—I thought of it as a high-speed vagrancy. But the railroad lines tended to skewer everything, through the heart of any community that was in their way. In that sense, I felt like we were seeing America in the most unfiltered, intimate way we could. Driving around the highways, that’s not what you’re getting.

Most of the people you meet along the way say freedom is the best thing about America. But Guillermo says that he sees freedom but also sadness—and weak community ties. Do you agree? Is returning to our society particularly difficult because of that?

I think Guillermo’s exactly right. We’re very fragmented, and he’d say the same thing about modern Spain. And healing the wounds of war requires community. We try to heal people individually with pharmaceuticals and individual therapy, but there’s no community process, and it just doesn’t work. In a platoon, you’re literally and metaphorically sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder. Then you come back to your lonely house at the end of the cul-de-sac in the exurbs, and of course it’s hard.

Aside from the difficult topics you broach in the film—trauma, substance abuse, loss—there’s also the very practical discomfort of the trek. Rainstorms, snowstorms, blisters, sun strokes. Why did you make your journey so physically arduous?

Hardship makes you emotionally vulnerable—if you’re driving around in a minivan and sleeping in a hotel room, you’re not emotionally vulnerable. There’s something about the hardship on that trip that drove us into each other’s arms emotionally, which is what combat does. Walking is hard, sleeping outside is hard, but it’s also one of the most immediate ways to encounter the country.

What do you want audiences to walk away with after seeing The Last Patrol?

Couple of things. One is that we live in an absolutely extraordinary country that is also in a lot of psychic pain, and the two are not mutually exclusive. If we’re not real about what we are and what our burdens are as a country, we’re not going to make it. If nothing else, I hope the film gets people to love this country more deeply and to be more real about what our problems are as a nation.

The other thing is that your sense of maleness is pretty simple and solid in combat. It’s not up for debate. And I think one of the very difficult things is to come home to this society where it’s very unclear to young men what it means to be a man, in 2014, in America. These guys come back, and all of a sudden they don’t know what it means to be a man, certainly not without a gun in their hand and without an obvious enemy. I think we need to figure it out in a positive way, without deciding that manhood is an un-PC, obsolete concept. 

The Last Patrol is co-presented with HBO Documentary Films and screens on the opening night of the 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival on Thursday, October 23, at 7 pm.