‘The Last Patrol’ Is a Haunting Eulogy for ‘Restrepo’
New documentary shows how hard it is to come home from war
Three men walk along an abandoned rail line. They’ve loaded down their backpacks, military-style. They’ve been sleeping in the woods. Heat shimmers the image.
“Do you miss combat at all?” one man asks.
“I do,” another replies. “I’m this invincible kid that wants to go back and shoot at more people and have them shoot at me.”
“It’s a crazy game,” the first says. He then tells the story of George Washington’s first battle.
“I heard bullets whistle … there was something charming in the sound,” America’s first president wrote after returning from fighting the French in the woods.
This is The Last Patrol, the new documentary from director and journalist Sebastian Junger.
The Last Patrol is the final film in a trilogy Junger began working on in 2007, when he and photojournalist Tim Hetherington followed a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade as it deployed to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
Junger and Hetherington crafted their footage into 2010’s Restrepo—which tells the story of the remote Restrepo outpost and the men who fought and died there. Hetherington died in Libya following the film’s release.
Junger adapted the remaining footage into the documentary Korengal. It’s a more personal film, focusing on the day-to-day struggles of the soldiers in the Korengal. The interviews are emotionally punishing.
The Last Patrol is the coda to Restrepo and Korengal. Junger, another photojournalist and two combat veterans wander north from Washington D.C.
In a journey Junger describes as “high-speed vagrancy,” the four walk America’s rail lines, dodge authorities and sleep outdoors.
All the while, they talk about war. “What it does to you,” Junger says. “How it changes you. Why you miss it. Why it’s so hard to come home from war and re-enter society.”
Early in the film, we see Junger and Hetherington riding a train and staring out the window. They discuss how easy it would be to cross the country by following the tracks.
Often, the rail lines come right to the edge of neighborhoods. There are no fences to keep them out. They make plans to take the cross-country trip.
Hetherington haunts Last Patrol. This plan—to decompress from war by walking America’s railroads—was always meant to include him. Part of the point of the journey is for Junger to help put his friend’s death behind him.
Spanish photojournalist Guillermo Cervera joins Junger on the walk. He was another friend of Hetherington’s—he held Hetherington’s hand as he died in Libya.
Cervera is the outsider. Army soldier Dave Roels also joins the group for some of the trip. Roels joined the Army in 1993. He needed money for college. He stayed because he liked it. He greeted deployment to Afghanistan after 9/11 with guilty excitement.
Now, his term of service is almost up. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He’s never looked for a job. He’s never bought clothes. The military used to take care of all that.
Brendan O’Byrne rounds out the group. He’s one of the soldiers Tim met at Restrepo. His discussion of the nature of God was one of the most powerful moments in Korengal.
Of the four, O’Byrne is the most excited about the trip … and the most troubled back home. He’s drinking a lot and has the most trouble putting the war behind him.
They all have trouble putting the war behind them. That’s the point of the trip. “We’d all seen combat, we’d all lost close friends and we were all trying to come home,” Junger says. “I thought a 300-mile walk might help.”
A walk through the woods—even a long hike—makes sense. The four are completely divorced from society and have time to work through their emotions without distraction. But why walk the rails?
“They go straight through the middle of everything,” Junger says. The rails cut through farms, suburbs, ghettos and woods. It’s a cross section of America. The goal is not just to shake war from their backs, but also to reacquaint themselves with the country they’re coming back to.
But there’s another, more honest reason the group walks the rails—it’s illegal.
The lines they’re walking are all owned by Amtrak. It’s private property. They aren’t supposed to be there. The group dodges Amtrak cops, hides in the woods and avoids the trains. They experience a tiny thrill. It’s almost like they’re behind enemy lines.
Toward the end of the film, O’Byrne and Junger watch down the line through binoculars. They thought they saw an Amtrak cop. They’re making sure it was just a normal car. They’re both smiling. Junger asks O’Byrne why getting away with something feels so good.
“We need something to get our blood going a little bit,” O’Byrne says.
These are four men with four very different reasons for going to war. Roels—the most practical of the group—joined because he needed money for college. O’Byrne needed a job that would keep him out of trouble.
Cerevera went to war to piss off his father. Cervera’s father is a defense contractor and makes money from war. It’s all legal, but Cervera grew up hating it. When he was old enough, he went to war to take pictures. He wanted to show his father the ridiculous horror he helped create.
Junger went to war in his early 30s. “I went, partly because I was searching for a career and war reporters seemed kind of interesting and exciting and romantic,” Junger says. “But really, I went because I felt I wasn’t a man yet.”
“That worked,” he adds. “I feel like experiences in war turned me into the person I wanted to be.”
What it means to be a man is a running theme in Junger’s work. Both Restrepo and Korengal suggest that war may be one of the last places that men can go to be men. In The Last Patrol, Junger asks his traveling companions about what it means to be a man.
It’s as if, now that war is over, he needs a new definition.
“I realized my biggest challenge now,” Junger says. “Is to feel like a worthy person without that steroid injection of good feeling that comes from doing something dangerous.”
Roels’ time with the Army isn’t finished. He leaves the group before the end of the walk in order to return to Afghanistan. “I’ll always say I won’t go back,” he says. “But that’s not the reality. We’ll all go back at some point.”
Cervera leaves when the summer gets too hot and nasty. Toward the end of the trip, the three men are walking through blistering heat. It’s 100 degrees in the shade. Their cameraman suffers heat stroke.
Finally, it’s just O’Byrne and Junger. O’Byrne wants to push on but Junger begs off. He’s seen what he wanted to see. There is a sense from O’Byrne, that he’ll never see what he needs to see.
There’s no trek across America, no war and no beer bottle that will bring him peace. Just as in Korengal and Restrepo, O’Byrne is the man to watch. His story is the real story of the The Last Patrol.
In the final moments of the film, O’Byrne strips off his shirt and gives an honest little monologue about the state of the American soldier returning from war. He says it with a grin on his face and a hitch in his voice. He’s smiling to keep from crying.
The Last Patrol is on HBO all this month. It’s also available on demand at hbogo.com.