Sebastian Junger, the much-celebrated war correspondent who spent months in combat with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan for an award-winning documentary, coped with post-traumatic stress that left him panicking in a New York subway station, “absolutely convinced I was going to die.”
The writer and filmmaker offers that reflection in opening a new story for Vanity Fair about the condition, which has affected generations of American combat troops. The reaction came from facing a Taliban rocket attack while reporting on and traveling with Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan leader who opposed the militant group before his assassination just prior to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was on assignment to write a profile of Massoud, who fought a desperate resistance against the Taliban until they assassinated him two days before 9/11,” Junger wrote. “At one point during my trip we were on a frontline position that his forces had just taken over from the Taliban, and the inevitable counterattack started with an hour-long rocket barrage. All we could do was curl up in the trenches and hope. I felt deranged for days afterward, as if I’d lived through the end of the world.”
Junger, best known in the military for outlining the horrors the United States faces in the book “War” and its related documentary, “Restrepo,” was suffering from short-term acute post-traumatic stress, he wrote.
“Suddenly I found myself backed up against a metal support column, absolutely convinced I was going to die,” Junger wrote about the subway incident. “There were too many people on the platform, the trains were coming into the station too fast, the lights were too bright, the world was too loud. I couldn’t quite explain what was wrong, but I was far more scared than I’d ever been in Afghanistan.”
Massoud appeared prominently in a story Junger wrote for the February 2002 edition of Vanity Fair, after he returned to Afghanistan to cover the offensive to remove the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
In the new piece on post-traumatic stress, Junger suggests several ways of better reintegrating combat troops into American society, including a practice common among some Native American groups: the retelling of combat experiences by a warrior to his own community.
“We could achieve that on Veterans Day by making every town and city hall in the country available to veterans who want to speak publicly about the war,” he wrote. “The vapid phrase ‘I support the troops’ would then mean actually showing up at your town hall every Veterans Day to hear these people out.”
Veterans would display a variety of emotions, including pride, anger and grief, he predicted.
“It might also begin to re-assemble a society that has been spiritually cannibalizing itself for generations,” he wrote. “We keep wondering how to save the vets, but the real question is how to save ourselves. If we do that, the vets will be fine. If we don’t, it won’t matter anyway.”