A Veteran War Correspondent Takes a 'Last Patrol' Through Middle America

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Author Sebastian Junger
Author Sebastian Junger in 2013 walking along the railroad tracks in Pennsylvania. (Guillermo Cervera)

Sebastian Junger, author of New York Times bestseller "The Perfect Storm" and producer of definitive war documentaries "Restrepo" and "Korengal," is hiding from the authorities. Without the protection of a roof over his head, and engaged in the legally dubious, if time-honored, tradition of trekking along railroad tracks, he's just as anonymous and just as vulnerable to assault or mugging as any drifter.

"One night north of Baltimore we were walking late to avoid the heat and suddenly the darkness was filled with lights and sirens and the heavy whap whap whap of a helicopter at low altitude. There wasn't much we could do but crouch down in tall grass and hope they didn't have infrared," Junger writes. " ... We got up a couple of hours later and hoisted our bags and staggered off like exhausted drunks. We didn't know how much trouble we were in but wanted to make sure we were outside their search grid before people were back at their desks in the morning."

Walking the rail in 2013 with nothing beyond the clothes on his back and what he can carry in a rucksack, Junger is forced to reflect on what it means to untether from society and the myth of living truly free. In "Freedom," his bracingly short treatise on liberty and community in America, few scene-setting details are provided about the very real foot journey he took, in stages, with companions including a war photographer and two Afghanistan veterans. The physical hump on the tracks is just the framework for a deeper odyssey into the founding of America, from the natives who lived off the land until forced off; to the early European settlers who met brutal fates; to the workers who laid the 140,000 miles of railroad track that still connects the country.

Junger called his journey "The Last Patrol." He spoke with Military.com about it and "Freedom" earlier this month. The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.

Military.com: It has not escaped me that your books are getting shorter and shorter, and yet they seem to pack just as much of a punch. "Freedom" is just 147 pages. So what's behind the shift for you into kind of shorter, pithier works?

Sebastian Junger: My previous books were accounts of something. An account of a sinking ship, an account of a deployment, an account of a murder from the 1960s. And if you're going to write a fully fleshed-out account of something historical that happens, you're going to need some pages to do that responsibly. But with an idea, in my opinion, the shorter and more concise you can be, the more effective you are. And if I went on for 600 pages ... I either wouldn't have boiled the idea down to a sort of lean, mean form that I could communicate effectively, or it's just a sort of sprawling entity that, you know, people may not get through. For the author, like you want your ideas communicated effectively. If you believe in your ideas, if you think that they're true and helpful, you want as many people as possible to absorb them. If you can put a core idea into the shortest form possible, that makes it the most likely to connect with the most number of people.

Military.com: In "Freedom," you're really writing inside the journey for the duration of the book, and you give spare hints from time to time about who your companions are, why you're walking, the circumstances. But can you describe in more detail how this trip or or trips came about?

SJ: For the book itself, I didn't want the reader to think that we, I, the people I was walking with, were the point. I wanted America to be the focus. And so, by not naming us and describing the landscape and the people in great detail, I wanted to shift the focus onto the place we were moving through, the people we're interacting with. But with that said, so in 2008, I think it was, I was going down to Washington, D.C., with my colleague [British photojournalist] Tim Hetherington, with whom I spent a year off and on shooting video in [Afghanistan's] Korengal Valley to make our film "Restrepo." And we were going down to D.C. to sort of lobby National Geographic to buy our film and, you know, staring out the window as usual, and I just remember I said to Tim, "You can you walk the whole length of this; you can stitch together an actual walking route right alongside the tracks." You're seeing America from the inside out. ... You have access to society, but it's also kind of unmonitored and uncontrolled. And that to me was like, Wow, what a fun game that would be. And Tim agreed, and so we made plans to do this. And then he got killed in Libya [in April 2011]. And so I made friends with an amazing Spanish photographer named Guillermo Cervera, who was in there basically holding Tim's hand as he died in the back of a rebel pickup truck in Misrata.

In Libya, I got to know Guillermo very well. ... I got a couple of guys I knew from "Restrepo," vets, American soldiers, and I got them and Guillermo and I said, "Let's do this." Let's walk from D.C. to New York. And we set out, and we got to Philly and then decided to turn west. And this is over the course of a year; the trip is broken up.

Military.com: So you're this established author, a name that probably a lot of people know, and you describe having to avoid police officers. It's almost like this journey that teenagers would make right out of high school or something.

SJ: Yeah, I was a little bit aware of that. I mean, there's a bit of teenager in all of us, I think, and if there isn't, God help you. And so the balance of sort of being a responsible citizen, but also, maybe not obeying every single letter of every law, you know. There's a balance there that you got to find, and my own rationalization for this was that there's law, there's morality, and technically we're breaking the law. We were trespassing, but we actually weren't harming anyone. We weren't harming any person, or anything. And, you know, so whenever that was, the sort of justification in my own mind, was just enough for us to keep walking without a guilty conscience.

Military.com: You called this trip "The Last Patrol." What was behind that name for you?

SJ: Well, we'd all been in war and weren't really going back to war again. Military patrols are, among other things, attempts to monitor your surroundings and see if you're safe, and see what the enemies do and make sure that you have control of the situation. They're also called movement to contact. And basically, what that means is, you come into contact with someone, either a villager, who you can sort of say, "Hey, how you doing? Do you want a bushel of rice? Can we make friends with you?" Or until you come into contact with the enemy and get shot at. So we thought of this as a kind of movement to contact through America to assess not only what America is about right now, what kind of country it is, but also how we were doing, what kind of people we were. We were trying to find out both.

Military.com: So you set out to kind of learn something about the status quo in America. And you know, it's a deeply divided, deeply troubled time, in many ways. But what do you feel like you did learn or were able to ascertain over the course of this journey?

SJ: Well, it's definitely very racially segregated. I mean, we went to Black towns and White towns and Black areas and White areas. And the poorer the area, the more friendly people tended to be. It was over the 2012 election, and people were already extremely divided. And there were some folks we talked to who had shockingly violent rhetoric directed toward the president, President [Barack] Obama. I mean, really kind of shocking. I felt like a personal animus was the beginning of the fracture that culminated in [the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol]. Hopefully culminated, I mean. Maybe it is worse yet to come. But it really seemed to be people's preferences, overriding their concept of democracy. I'd never seen that in this country before.

Military.com: Do you have thoughts about how to repair what has been sundered in America?

SJ: I mean, both parties have to decide and overtly dictate that the truth is more important than an election result. And that the welfare of the country is more important than the welfare of a particular political party or a particular politician. And if the two parties are not able to say and publicly articulate that as their highest value, we will soon no longer have a democracy. And that's up to both parties to do. I think one party has a little more territory to cover than the other. But that's up to both parties to do.

Military.com: And was this really the last patrol for you?

SJ: Life caught up with me and so it's a little harder today, but we plan on getting back out there. We were last on the road a couple of years ago, and we'll be back out there again.

"Freedom," from Simon & Schuster, is available everywhere May 18.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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