When Sebastian Junger first came home from Afghanistan, it was the garbage trucks that got him. “I kept leaping out of bed when they’d go by at 3 a.m.,” he says. “They all hit the same pothole on our street, and it sounded just like artillery.” But softer noises freak him out more. “The thing that really makes me jump is a quiet tapping sound,” he says, “because that’s what a machine gun sounds like from 400 yards, and all the gunfire in the Korengal Valley”—in Kunar Province, where Junger’s unit was stationed—“was distant, from 300 or 400 yards away. A really loud bap-bap-bap: That’s someone next to you shooting someone else. That’s a reassuring sound.”
Junger embedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, for five monthlong stints during its fourteen-month deployment. He simultaneously wrote dispatches for Vanity Fair, gathered material for his book WAR, and made, together with his Vanity Fair photographer, Tim Hetherington, an arresting documentary, Restrepo, which is due out June 25. At first he was worried when Battle Company got assigned to Korengal Valley in the northeast instead of the seemingly more action-packed southern part of the country. But as it turned out, that six-mile stretch of mountains was home to 20 percent of all combat in the country at the time. Seven men died during the deployment, including PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo, now namesake for both the documentary and the platoon’s remote outpost.
Junger and Hetherington actually had, as journalists, more previous war experience than the soldiers with whom they were embedded, but neither was expecting to be shot at nearly every day. While filming an offensive in which one soldier died, Hetherington broke his leg but had to keep hiking downhill till dawn. Junger ruptured his Achilles tendon hauling gear, but limped his way through another three weeks in the valley, which is so steep it can be patrolled only by foot. Later, he was in a Humvee that got hit by an IED. “It went off under the engine block instead of under us,” he says. “It just disturbed me that something that important, that personally catastrophic, could be determined by something as tiny and random as ten feet, as a tenth of a second. That life works that way was sort of intolerable. I had a lot of bad dreams after that and got very depressed. War was not exciting any longer.”
It took a while to adjust back in New York. “I’m a mellow guy, and all of a sudden, I had a temper,” he says. The post-deployment interviews in Restrepo reveal once-gung-ho young men who seem to have no way of emotionally processing what they’ve been through. And yet today, all but one are still in the Army. About a third were redeployed back to Kunar (an area the U.S. has since abandoned). The key to helping these guys when they come home, Junger says, is to understand why they all miss it. “It’s not adrenaline,” he says, “like The Hurt Locker would have you believe. It’s brotherhood, and a sense of identity, a sense of being necessary, and a sense of loyalty and commitment by other people to you and vice versa. It’s intoxicating. The idea of ‘You must be so fucked up that you want to go back there, you must be an adrenaline junkie’ is such a useless analysis of what they’re experiencing.” It’s also pretty much why war reporters keep going back.
And yes, despite promises to his wife, Junger thinks he’ll return to war, but not on the front lines again. “My risk tolerance isn’t particularly high now,” he says.