(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)
Each episode of Band of Brothers has moments of heroism, followed by moments of heartbreak. The series builds on itself too, increasing the emotional tension until, as viewers, we almost can’t take anymore.
By episode eight, “The Last Patrol”, I wanted to scream, “Enough.” Seriously, can this company take anymore?
The men of Easy Company never got the extended R and R they expected (and deserved) after Bastogne. During “The Last Patrol”, Easy Company sits on one side of a river receiving mortar and sniper fire from a German company on the other side. The grunts on each side, American and German, just want the war to end. The leaders still want glory, so regimental headquarters decides to start sending patrols across the river at night to capture prisoners.
More germane to today’s post, “The Last Patrol” introduces us to a new officer, Lieutenant Jones, one year removed from West Point. It also reintroduces us to Pfc. Webster, the Harvard educated English major who, unlike Sgt. Toye, chose to stay in the hospital while Easy went to Bastogne. Toye lost his legs; Webster reports to the company unscathed. The difference is stark: Lt. Jones and Webster enter Germany bright-eyed, optimistic, and healthy, mentally and physically; Easy Company barely fields 80 physically and emotionally unhealthy men.
Unwittingly, the creators also wrote the perfect episode to capture my emotions during war. I showed up late to my battalion’s deployment to Afghanistan, after my men had already lost fellow soldiers. When I took over 4th platoon, many of the guys treated me like Lieutenant Jones.
This episode captures my emotional feelings during deployment better than any other single piece of art, except for maybe The Things They Carried. When I recently rewatched this episode--for the first time since my deployment to Afghanistan--I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh my God, that is exactly how I felt.” Which actually happened several times throughout “The Last Patrol”...
“The feeling you might live through it.”
This thought, which dominated the episode, dominated my thoughts for the last three months of my deployment. My men too. Actually, this thought/feeling hit me/us twice during deployment.
The first time was when we left the Korengal. One day, our battalion headquarters decided that, in two months, our platoon would leave the Korengal for Serkani district. My men--who had watched over half a dozen fellow soldiers in our company die and one of our own lose his legs--felt that they might actually survive.
Four months after that, we started fielding MRAPs. Riding in these vehicles felt like riding in giant lifesavers, impenetrable boxes that could survive a nuclear blast if they needed. (They couldn’t, but felt like they could.) Insurgents had started planting IEDs in the roads. Driving around in MRAPs just felt safer.
From June on we had the feeling that we would probably make it home.
I never ran one. It’s illegal. When he chose to do this, Major Winters specifically disregarded the orders of his commander. By this point in Band of Brothers, Winters has already cemented his position as uber-officer extraordinaire. Most viewers sympathize with Winters and Easy Company avoiding the patrol. I just want to point out most battalion commanders I knew would fire on the spot any lieutenant or captain caught running ghost patrols.
And they still happen constantly in war.
“Toye broke out of the hospital.”
The men of Easy company greet Pfc. Webster by saying this when he finally leaves the hospital. Unlike other soldiers who escaped the Army medical system to rejoin their units, Webster took as long as he could. Webster missed the hardest part of Easy’s time in Europe, so he’ll always be the guy who missed out. As a new lieutenant, like Lt. Jones, I got a slightly different question...
“What took you so long to get here?”
At some point, Nixon asked the lieutenant when he graduated. Lt. Jones says, “December 6th”. Nixon says, “D-day?” And laughs, implying, “What took you so long to get here?” In my case, U.S. Army European Command only scheduled, “Individual Readiness Training” every two months. Regulations said I had to attend five days of utterly nonsensical training before I was fully “qualified” to deploy.
But how do you explain that to guys who had watched one of their favorite NCOs lose all feeling in his arm by a bullet? And countless other friends die? Or a well-liked specialist lose both his legs? You can’t, and you’ll always be...the guy who missed out.
As a result, taking over fourth platoon will be the single best and worst job I have ever had, and possibly will ever have. Don’t get me wrong, I loved fourth platoon’s “Helldivers’, and I wouldn’t trade my deployment with them for anything in the world (except to have shown up earlier). But I don’t think any job will demand more from me than gaining the respect of battle hardened veterans as a brand new lieutenant.
After hating the Hurt Locker, I was worried that maybe my military experience had ruined war films for me.
I’ve heard this from Vietnam vets who can’t watch any films about that era without thinking, “What a load of hogwash.” Well, when it comes to World War II, I can still relate to it. Especially this episode of Band of Brothers.