Documentary on war, 'Restrepo', chills slain soldier's mother
By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Two weeks ago, Marcela Pardo of Pembroke Pines stood in line at a movie theater in north Miami and paid full price to see Restrepo, an award-winning documentary about the war in Afghanistan named for her beloved child, Juan Restrepo.
She liked that no one in the theater knew her, and tried not to be bothered by people eating popcorn.
"I knew what was coming, and it was hard," she said.
In 1992, Pardo had moved from Colombia to Miami with Juan, then 6 years old, because she was fed up with the constant violence between guerillas and paramilitary, drug lords and law enforcement. Friends died. Her brother disappeared, never to be seen again.
"I knew war and hated it," she said.
In South Florida, Juan thrived. By the end of high school, he was a good student, a runner and a classical guitar player. And, most important, says his mother, "a very caring person."
She thought he would go to college like his parents. But he chose the Army instead because the physical challenge and discipline appealed to him. He trained to be a medic and was sent to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in late spring 2007.
He wrote his mother that where he was in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border looked like "abuelo's farm" in the mountains near Medellín, Colombia. He wrote that he had given pills to sick children who had gotten well. His platoon was fired at every day, he said, but he knew Afghanis who appreciated the soldiers.
"He was weary," said his mother, "but not hopeless."
She was relieved. Afghanistan was not as violent as Iraq. He would be there 15 months and come home, she thought. But on the third anniversary of her son's death, sitting in the cold, dark theater, she knew what was to come.
• • •
Afghanistan in 2007 was a far cry from Afghanistan in 2001, when the United States attacked after 9/11. Back then, the Taliban was on the run, scurrying south into the tribal territories of Pakistan to hide. The few low-ranking Talibanis who stayed in view around Kabul and the surrounding provinces tried to blend in, sometimes helping British and U.S. soldiers put in water systems and schools.
But by 2007, the Taliban weren't hiding any longer. They had rejected the "hearts-and-minds" plans of the invaders. Increasingly brazen and heavily armed fundamentalists were gaining control, especially in the Korengal Valley along the northeastern border with Pakistan.
The military objective in sending Juan Restrepo and his platoon there was to push Taliban forces to the east, deeper into the tribal territories of Pakistan. The goal was to expand U.S.-funded rebuilding programs so that locals would turn on the Taliban.
Between 2007 and 2009, according to military statistics, the Korengal Valley was the most violent place in Afghanistan, with more than 70 percent of the fighting in the entire country.
Documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) spent 10 months, on and off, with the troops in the Korengal Valley to make Restrepo, which won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"What I hope the film does is show us what the soldiers go through and how they form their motivations so we can figure out if what we ask of them is fair," Hetherington said.
• • •
When the film begins, Juan Restrepo, a good-looking kid with a flashy smile, is on a train heading toward Rome with other soldiers who are going to Korengal with him. They are drunk, full of life, and full of themselves.
"We're going to be loving life and ready to go to war," says a smiling Restrepo, foreshadowing the odd juxtapositions that are a constant part of this film.
When Marcela Pardo saw her son laughing on the train, she thought she'd have to leave the theater.
"I can't tell you the pain," she said. But she stuck with it "out of loyalty to Juan."
In the next scene, Restrepo and his group are patrolling in a craggy village of mud and stone, peering out of an Army truck at men in billowing white robes and women draped in swaths of cloth from head to toe. The locals stare back at the invaders, who are packed in armor and loaded down with artillery.
A few scenes later, as they walk through a wooded area, twigs snapping under their boots, the soldiers come under fire.
The film doesn't show Restrepo getting hit in the neck. But it does show his distressed buddies on the hillside minutes after it happened, reassuring one another that he was alive when he was loaded on a medical helicopter. When they learned later that he bled to death within minutes, they refused to believe it.
"In the movie, I could see they loved him so much and I felt so proud," said his mother.
In his honor, Restrepo's group of 15 to 20 buddies named a primitive camp after him. "Outpost Restrepo" marked a position farther into Taliban territory than U.S. troops had previously gone.
• • •
Surprisingly, the most haunting part of the film for Pardo was not the moment of her son's death. It was what happened when Outpost Restrepo soldiers and Taliban fighters got in a firefight after his death.
An A-10 Warthog dropped a 500-pound bomb on a village. Hours later, the troops entered a mud and stone house and found a lifeless, curly-headed toddler. A man stepped forward with another bloody toddler in his arms.
"We have five dead and 10 women and children injured," the man says. "Show me which one is the Taliban."
"Damn, I need to do better," says a distraught Capt. Dan Kearney, the platoon leader.
But weeks later when two of the Outpost Restrepo soldiers were blown to bits and several of them injured in a firefight, the reaction was different: "I wish we were closer, so I could see them when we kill them," said an Army specialist.
Marcela Pardo watched the escalating violence and closed her eyes.
"From the very beginning of this film, I was struck by the contrast and could see the war in Afghanistan from both sides," she said. "I lived in a place like this and know it.
"I thought about the person who killed my son. I think he is probably a kid just like Juan — a victim in the political crossfire, with no control over anything. I thought about the little girl in the house killed by our soldiers, and I realized it is worse to kill — to have that with you — than to be killed."
• • •
Soldiers in flak jackets with M-16s cradled in their arms sit on a faded Afghan rug in a room with mud walls. Unarmed village elders with long, bright-orange henna-stained beards sit across from them, eyeing them warily.
The elders sip tea from porcelain cups. The soldiers suck fruit punch from foil pouches. Capt. Kearney tells the elders through a translator that the soldiers want to build a road to another valley, which will make the residents of the village "more powerful" and "flood" them with money.
The elders sit stone-faced.
One responds: "What about the cow you killed? It was illegal. Will you reimburse us?"
The answer is: No money, just rice and beans. The elder looks troubled. "Forget the road," he says.
"One step forward, two steps back," says a weary soldier.
When Marcela Pardo walked out of the film, a TV news team aimed a camera on her, asking for her reaction. She stammered a brief response and later thought about what she wished she had said: "There needs to be more forgiveness in the world."
In April, Outpost Restrepo was abandoned by the U.S. military.
"Nevertheless," said Restrepo filmmaker Hetherington, "for many of the soldiers it remains a symbol of a state of mind that can never be taken away."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin covered the war in Afghanistan for the Miami Herald in 2001. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The death of Pfc. Juan Restrepo: Tragedy becomes a movie
.BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
Traveling with [Sgt. Brendan] O'Byrne were two other privates. . . and a combat medic name Juan Restrepo. Restrepo was born in Colombia but lived in Florida. . . He spoke with a slight lisp and brushed his teeth compulsively and played classical and flamenco guitar. . . Once in garrison he showed up at morning [physical training] drunk from the night before, but he was still able to run the two-mile course in 12.5 minutes and do 100 situps. If there was a guaranteed way to impress Second Platoon, that was it.
(From War, by Sebastian Junger, Twelve press, 2010. )
For 20 years and nine months, Juan Sebastian Restrepo was Marcela Pardo's son.
For 17 months, he was a U.S. Army soldier.
Now, because of an award-winning documentary, his name is becoming shorthand for America's vexing war in Afghanistan.
On July 22, 2007, Juan Restrepo of Pembroke Pines died on a craggy hillside 7,000 miles from home in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley: a Taliban-infested death trap where nearly 50 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in five years of conflict.
In the dead of night two months after his death, Second Platoon, the Spartans, hacked OP (for ``outpost'') Restrepo from the rock-strewn dirt where he fell: ``the most vulnerable base in the most hotly contested valley of the entire American sector,'' Junger wrote.
He and photojournalist Tim Hetherington spent much of a year there, then chose the base's -- and consequently Juan's -- name, for a film about combat soldiers' lives.
Restrepo: One Platoon, One Year, One Valley (National Geographic Entertainment), a feature-length documentary that won a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, opens at the AMC Aventura 24 Theater on July 23 -- three years and a day after PFC Juan Sebastian ``Doc'' Restrepo, Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was killed.
`YOU HAVE A SON AND SUDDENLY -- YOU DON'T'
Recently, Pardo met Junger at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. She asked him to describe exactly how her son died.
Junger wasn't with Second Platoon that day, but he interviewed soldiers who were. They said Juan's patrol was ambushed. He took two bullets. One tore through his throat.
Dodging gunfire, his buddies scrambled to rescue him. He bled to death on a medevac helicopter.
He was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Basic Parachutist Badge and the Combat Medical Badge.
Recalling that meeting, Junger said both he and Pardo ``struggled for composure,'' she more successfully than he. And he understands why a mother might want to hear the details.
``Information helps with processing the tragedy,'' he said. ``There's this black hole. You have a son -- and suddenly you don't.''
He was able to offer small comfort: ``He didn't die alone. He died surrounded by his `family.' ''
In dangerous, isolated war zones, platoon is family, and from 2005 until April 2010, no place was more dangerous and isolated than the Korengal. It was a transit point for Kabul-bound Taliban fighters from Pakistan, and a base of operation for al Qaeda leaders.
There, few soldiers were more admired than Restrepo, ``because he was brave under fire and absolutely committed to the men. If you got sick he'd take your guard shift,'' Junger wrote. ``If you were depressed he'd come to your hooch and play guitar. He took care of his men in every possible way.''
He was humble, said O'Byrne.
They had a guitar competition.
``He was like, `I'm not that good on a steel string.' Then he plays Stairway to Heaven without f---ing up once, but he's like, `I was off rhythm.' Then he plays a Metallica song beginning to end,'' O'Byrne said in a phone interview on Friday.
Restrepo's loss reduced to tears hard-shelled soldiers who had seen, and caused, plenty of death.
``We loved him like a brother,'' PFC Miguel Cortez told Junger.
LIKE AN EXTENDED FINGER OF DEFIANCE
In life he had strengthened their bond; in death he steeled their resolve.
``When the boys built that base,'' about 700 feet straight up the hill from Second Platoon's Firebase Phoenix, ``the Taliban in the valley were completely in shock,'' Capt. Dan Kearney explains in the film. ``It was like a middle finger sticking up. When they realized they couldn't knock off OP Restrepo, we had the upper hand.''
In two years of operation, OP Restrepo housed 15 to 20 soldiers at a time. Initially a hole in the dirt, it grew into a tarp/plywood/sandbag shantytown without running water, powered by generators, ``protected'' by giant bags of rocks.
The men showered once a month at a larger base more than an hour's hike away. It was scorching in summer and frigid in winter and constantly under attack.
Every day, one lucky soul got to burn the human waste.
It was a lot like the places where Juan spent his final months -- and nothing like Pembroke Pines, where he'd grown up.
From 1999 until he left for the Army in early 2006, Juan lived in the 19300 block of Southwest Fifth Street: the Estancia subdivision. He has an older brother, Ivan, and a younger brother, Pablo.
Born in the small Colombian town of Nieva, Juan was a naturalized U.S. citizen, like his mother. She named him after classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and calls him Sebastian.
He was 2 when his parents split, after which he seldom saw his father, a pediatric neurologist in Colombia.
In 1993, Pardo, a physical therapist, brought Juan and Ivan to Miami Gardens. Two years later, she moved them to Pines, remarried, then divorced.
LOVED SKATEBOARDS, SPARRING AND GUITARS
Juan cultivated a second family: best friend Jorge Gonzalez, his parents, little brother, and assorted relatives. The close-knit, Italian-Mexican-American clan transplanted from Brooklyn lived within easy skateboarding distance of his house.
Jorge's mom, Janice Gonzalez, calls Juan ``my son.'' She keeps his red, Everlast boxing gloves on a shelf next to one of two folded coffin flags.
Pardo took the other to Colombia, where she buried her son.
Juan and Jorge did everything together, from playing in a garage band and going to prom, to skateboarding and sparring.
A self-taught guitarist, he was good enough to give lessons. A soccer fanatic, he toyed with the notion of playing professionally.
He saved every dime he made, and never asked his mother for anything.
``Once I saw him with a hole this big in his shoes,'' Pardo recalls. ``He didn't tell me because he didn't want me to spend money. He put cardboard in there. Can you imagine?''
A fitness fanatic, Juan would swim laps outside in the dead of winter and do push-ups against a wall in the middle of a conversation.
``He thought he was Superman'' and seemed to hardly notice when he broke an arm, a leg or a collarbone skateboarding, she said.
Obsessive about his teeth, he carried a toothbrush in his left breast pocket even in combat, O'Byrne said.
``Any time he felt the compulsion, he gave his teeth a once-over.''
When this inevitably brought playful abuse, Juan would say something like: ``You don't get the ladies like I do.''
SIRS AND MA'AMS AND BOYISH MISCHIEF
When Janice Gonzalez first met Juan Restrepo, she wasn't sure she liked him. He was so polite that she thought he was up to something; no kid she knew said ``ma'am'' and ``sir,'' and had to be asked more than once to stay for dinner.
That changed quickly.
``You didn't like Juan; you loved him,'' she said. ``He had a contagious smile. He appreciated everything you did for him. If you gave him a dollar, it was like you gave him a million.''
He'd pop in and out of Jorge's bedroom window, and fall asleep on the floor.
He could sleep anywhere, said Jorge.
``You could put him in a car with . . . a bunch of sweaty skateboarders . . . and you give him this much room, and he'd go right into a coma.''
There was no end to the boys' mischief.
The boys were still at Flanagan High School when military recruiters began coming around, but both Marcela Pardo and Janice Gonzalez were adamantly against their sons enlisting.
An Army sergeant ``was trying to tell me it was the best thing for Jorge and Juan and trying to sell us a bill of goods,'' said Janice, 43. ``I told him, `You're going to use my kids for crash dummies, so as far as I'm concerned, neither one will enlist. If they try to, I'll run them over and break their legs.' I told him to go pound salt.''
MED SCHOOL DREAMS FOREVER UNFULFILLED
But Juan knew it might be the only way to get what he wanted.
In a middle-school writing assignment, he described himself as a boy ``with a great imagination and many dreams and goals [who] always wanted to become a doctor because both my father and grandfather were very good doctors, and I also like helping people.''
He wanted to attend Florida State University. But by the time he graduated from Flanagan in 2004, there wasn't any money for college.
So Juan went back to Colombia, where he taught guitar, studied classical violin -- and got a girl pregnant.
When he returned to Broward at Christmas 2005, he'd made up his mind to enlist.
The deal was $48,000, ``plus a $16,000 bonus and the easy ride. We were supposed to be on a `buddy package' and travel together,'' said Jorge, 23, who works for a primary-care doctor and is studying to be a physician's assistant.
``They told us, `You won't see a bullet. You guys will be working with people in a hospital setting. You are still signing in as a soldier, but if you go medical, we won't put you in harm's way. You're too smart.'
``And lo and behold; this is the end result.''
Jorge opted for the fire academy. Juan, he said, ``went behind all our backs. His mom couldn't stop him, so we couldn't.''
Juan enlisted on Feb. 22, 2006. His mother believes ``he did it because he didn't want me to spend money on him.''
She asks: ``What could I say? I told him, `It's your decision.' But I didn't agree with that because I am against war, and I knew he was going to war.''
Janice Gonzalez was still in the dark when Juan left for basic training and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.
The previous night, he'd crashed on Jorge's floor. The next morning, Janice noticed that Juan's lime-green Saturn was gone.
Then she saw the sticker on the rear bumper of her own car: Proud Mother of an Army Soldier.
She burst into Jorge's bedroom, screaming. When she finally spoke to Juan, she told him he was ``an ass, but what's done is done, and just be safe.''
Jorge said just before Juan reported for duty in Vicenza, Italy, on Nov. 22, 2006, he managed a quick trip to Colombia for his daughter's birth.
DRUNK AND SILLY ON A TRAIN TO ROME
Restrepo, the film, opens on a train headed for Rome. Juan is shooting video with a cheap camera. He and his buddies, including O'Byrne, are drunk and silly.
``Tonight is gonna be crazy,'' says Restrepo, flashing his glacier-white teeth. ``You can't tame the beast.''
Janice Gonzalez rolls her eyes.
``Beast? Oh please; he was a pussycat. A goofball.''
``Tune in same time next year,'' he rambles on. ``We're lovin' life -- and going to war.''
In early 2007, the army sent Juan to Germany for specialized medical training. He couldn't say much about it, but at the end, he told his family: ``They're sending me to the sandbox.''
Pardo was relieved to learn it was Afghanistan.
``I thought it was safer than Iraq. I was happy, and he was going to be all right because he was the `Doc,' and he was helping people.''
By May, he was in the Korengal.
``We were doing MySpace back then, and you could watch him transform from that kid on the train into a. . . robot for the Army,'' Janice said.
THE QUEASY CALL IN MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
About 8 p.m. July 18, 2007, the phone rang at Pardo's house. In Afghanistan, it was already the 19th: her 47th birthday.
Something wasn't right with her son who, according to Janice Gonzalez, ``could sleep on top of a picket fence.''
Pardo remembers him saying, `` `Mommy, I love you too much, but I cannot stand it anymore.' I cannot forget those words. It was so tough for him. Any noise would wake him up.''
The next day he called Jorge. It was 2 a.m. in Pembroke Pines.
``I was in twilight sleep and half out of it,'' Jorge recalls. ``I remember hearing his voice and asking, `Are you OK?' He's like, `It's just every day, we're taking fire. I didn't think it would be like this. Every day. Every day.' It was almost like a broken record.''
CHAPLAIN AT THE SUBDIVISION GATE
Sunday afternoon, July 22, 2007. Gate security called the Pardo's house, saying that people from the Army were on their way.
``So I knew,'' she said.
She met the chaplain and a younger man outside.
``When I saw [the younger man], I told him, `Did they kill my son?' . . . The guy almost cried when he told me.''
`` `I want you to be him,' I told him. `I want you to be Sebastian.' ''
Then she called Jorge, who immediately thought of Ariana, Juan's baby daughter.
``The ironic part of the situation is, if you knew Juan, you knew he was distraught about not having a father,'' Jorge said. ``He said, `I will never, ever, ever, do that to my kid.' ''
Once, Janet said, Juan's father was supposed to come from Colombia to take him to Disney World, but didn't show up.
``I think I actually heard that poor kid's heart break,'' she said.
The morning of July 23, Janice Gonzalez stormed into the recruiting office, demanding to see the sergeant who signed Juan Sebastian.
He'd been transferred, she was told.
``I threw Juan's recruiting photo on his desk, and I said, `Tell him that he has the blood of my son on his hands.' ''
Harvey Spigler, public affairs chief for the Army's Miami recruiting battalion, didn't know the specific details, and acknowledged that some recruiters didn't play by the rules.
``But all of our field force is instructed to be honest, straightforward and forthcoming, and make applicants and families understand there is the possibility that deployment is possible. . . . Our philosophy is to recruit with integrity.''
`THE COLOMBIAN BEAST IN THE MIDDLE EAST'
After her son's death, Pardo said her ``life went upside down.'' She asked the Army to fly his body to Colombia, which it did.
The Army, she said, ``has been wonderful.''
The family left the house on Fifth Street. Pardo spent two months in Bogota before returning to Broward.
``It was worse [in Colombia] because everyone was talking to me about him, and I couldn't stand it,'' she said.
On Veteran's Day 2007, in a ceremony sponsored by American Legion Post 36, Pardo placed a brick inscribed with her son's name on Fort Lauderdale's Riverwalk.
Both she and son Pablo, 9, have been in counseling.
When she talks about Juan Sebastian, Pardo careens from levity to misery in seconds. She has cried endlessly over the big questions, like who's to blame, and whether her son's sacrifice accomplished anything.
And, in the midst of a fierce national debate over immigration, whether anyone realizes that Juan Sebastian Restrepo, who once called himself ``the Colombian beast in the Middle East,'' died in service to an adopted flag.
``He loved this country,'' his mother said.
Yet she chose to bury him in Colombian soil. Anything else would have been ``another trophy for George Bush,'' who sent her son to war.
She weeps not just for Juan Sebastian, but for every kid who fought and died -- there, and here.
``The kids who come home and commit suicide -- they are the real heroes. All of them, we should respect.''
She finds solace in the fact that Afghan civilian casualties in the Korgenal have fallen dramatically. And she has forgiven ``the kid'' who killed her son.
``I don't see them like killers, terrorists. It was another kid.''
A MOMENT TO REFLECT AND THEN `MOVE ON'
Toward the end of the film, the men of Second Platoon gather to remember ``Doc'' Restrepo on July 22, 2008, the first anniversary of his death. In the dark, they shoot flares over the ambush spot.
``Kind of raise one up, say a few words in your head, and move on,'' a voice says.
Soon after, the platoon's 15-month deployment ends.
The camera lingers on a plywood wall bearing the words, ``This is for Doc Restrepo,'' as the men walk away.
On April 15, 2010, The Washington Post reported that in the pre-dawn hours of the previous day, U.S. presence in the Korengal Valley ``came to an abrupt end . . . Dozens of cargo helicopters hauled off equipment. By Wednesday morning, the last Americans were gone.''
Military leaders had concluded that holding posts like Restrepo weren't worth the cost in American lives.
It was, The Post noted, ``as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding -- a tragic, bloody misunderstanding.''