The Last Patrol: A 300-mile conversation about war
In 2012, I invited Guillermo Cervera to accompany me and two combat vets on a 300-mile walking trip up the East Coast of the United States along the Amtrak railroad lines. It was a trip that I was originally going to take with my friend and colleague, photographer Tim Hetherington, but Tim was killed in a mortar attack while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. Guillermo and I became friends because he was the one who comforted Tim as they raced for the Misrata hospital in the back of a rebel pickup truck.
Our group was composed of myself and Guillermo, two combat vets that Tim and I had known in Afghanistan, and a cameraman I’d hired to document the trip. (Here is a trailer for the film about the walk, “The Last Patrol,” which will air on HBO November 10 at 9p.m. Eastern.) None of us were planning on going back to war again — a surprisingly difficult decision — and I thought we could all benefit from a long conversation about war and why it is so hard to give up. It’s illegal to walk along the railroad lines, so I thought of it as a kind of high-speed vagrancy that required us to move fast and stay out of sight. We carried everything we needed on our backs, slept wherever we could — under bridges or in abandoned buildings or simply in the woods — bathed in rivers, cooked over open fires and tried to avoid getting arrested by the police. At one point, they were looking for us with a helicopter, but they never got us.
One of the most important purposes of the trip was to get to know America in the most raw, intimate way possible. Railroad tracks are perfect for that because they go straight through the middle of everything: ghettos, suburbs, farms, forests, small towns. As the only foreigner, Guillermo was able to see this country with a freshness and honesty that no native ever could. His eye — and his camera — caught the rusting majesty of our industry, the loneliness of our suburbs, the racial segregation of our cities and the relentless psychic pain that so many people are in. One of his most heartbreaking photographs was not taken in a ghetto but rather in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, where a man in a suit sat alone, with his head in his hands, in an almost-empty church pew. Over and over Guillermo caught moments of great pain and ugliness, joy and beauty, that I have long ago become desensitized to. With this work, Guillermo has turned himself into one of the most important chroniclers of the great American experiment that I know of. To look at his work is to see our country with entirely fresh eyes.
Guillermo Cervera’s first solo exhibition in New York is on view at Anastasia Photo from Oct. 24, 2014 - Jan. 4, 2015.
Sebastian Junger is a journalist, most famous for the best-selling book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997), and documentary filmmaker whose award-winning films, Restrepo (2010), Korengal (2014), precede The Last Patrol and also chronicle the war in Afghanistan.