Veterans' often difficult transition from a war zone to home is examined in a new documentary from filmmaker Sebastian Junger. The Last Patrol takes audiences on a soul-searching journey with two veterans of the war in Afghanistan and a war photojournalist as they hike hundreds of kilometers along railroad tracks from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, talking about their experiences and efforts to return to civilian life.
Junger says he wanted to illustrate the reality that despite the dangers of combat, many veterans miss war because it gives them a deep sense of purpose and creates a bond among their unit. He experienced that first hand in 2007 and 2008 when he and his late partner, Tim Hetherington, were in one of the deadliest firefights in Afghanistan, in the Korengal valley, with the troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Junger says the goal of his first documentary, Restrepo, was to put raw war on the large screen so audiences could experience it in a way only soldiers can. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. His second documentary, Korengal, based on additional footage from 2008, was released earlier this year. The filmmaker wanted to focus on how combat affected the psyches of those who experienced it. Now, The Last Patrol, the third of Junger’s war trilogy, shows how soldiers returning to civilian life fare without a war to fight.
The closeness and camaraderie soldiers experience on the battlefield, Junger says, are hard to find back home, especially in such an individualistic culture as that of America. “I feel that this society invented loneliness,” he said.
Korengal fighters at home
Dave Roels, one of the veterans who fought in Korengal, is showcased in The Last Patrol. He is looking for purpose in civilian life.
"It's comforting to be in a group and when that's gone, it can be a very difficult adjustment to make,” he observed.
The same is true of Sergeant Brendan O' Byrne, the second veteran in the documentary. Junger remembers him at Korengal as an incredibly effective soldier and team leader.
“And then he comes home to the United States and he is a mess. Drank way too much, very self-destructive, he said. “But when we started doing The Last Patrol, all of a sudden, I would see the old Brendan I remember from Afghanistan."
Junger says Americans can help war veterans readjust to daily life only if they understand what they miss about combat. Otherwise, he says, society is not going to provide a place for them back home where they can feel comfortable.
A journey to find and define home
But first, Junger and his team had to define what is home. That was another reason, he says, they set out on their more than 600-kilometer journey. The Last Patrol is like a travelogue, showing the group camping, cooking in the woods, bathing in rivers and braving the elements as they walk along the railroad tracks.
“It was like living in high speed homelessness,“ Junger said, noting, "The thing about railroad lines is, it goes straight through farms, woods, ghettoes, suburbs, inner city, industry. It goes straight through the middle of everything. And on the way we were asking Americans we met how America was doing. 'How do you think America is doing? What's the thing that's best about this country? What's worst about it?' We did this 400-mile assessment of where my country is at, right now, and where we are at."
During the documentary, Junger, his four companions and his dog Daisy stop and chat with people from all walks of life. Many praise the United States as a beacon of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Others offer more troubled answers. They see America as politically and socially divided, people without jobs and no sense of direction. A young woman responds: “Best thing about America? Hmm. I got to Google it first….”
The Last Patrol portrays how some veterans feel lost as they try to find their way at a time of peace.