Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's "Restrepo" Memorialized a Local Soldier; Now the Soldier's Mom Has Her Own Fight

Marcela Pardo pulled into a Target parking lot in Hialeah. She was almost sick with worry, mostly about what she was about to watch on a movie screen. She wasn't sure, but she feared the film might show her how her son died — or the men he may have killed.

She slipped out of the casual clothes she wore as a physical therapist and into a mint-green satin shirt her mother had brought, since Marcela didn't have time for herself that day. Then she and her family carpooled to the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami. It was July 20, 2010, and the documentary created by journalist Sebastian Junger and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who was killed Wednesday in Libya, was making its South Florida premiere.

Approaching the theater, busy with people mingling on the outside patio, Marcela considered turning back. She knew watching this film would bring back the pain from three years earlier, when she lost her son, a private first class medic for the U.S. Army. He was killed on patrol in the Korengal Valley, a remote section of Afghanistan that has been fought over since the Soviets invaded in the '80s and is an area that has since been deemed too dangerous for the U.S. military. Juan Sebastian Restrepo was only 20 when he died, but he had made enough of an impact on his fellow soldiers that they later named their base after him. Juan's last name was emblazoned on that outpost and now on a film detailing combat-ridden life there. By the time of this screening, Restrepo had already won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was being talked about for an Oscar. For Marcela, it honored her son but also represented the hurt that still consumed her.

Restrepo was filmed in the Korengal Valley, a remote section of Afghanistan. The U.S. military has since pulled out of the region.
Courtesy of Outpost Films
Restrepo was filmed in the Korengal Valley, a remote section of Afghanistan. The U.S. military has since pulled out of the region.
Friends say Juan Restrepo was always quick with a joke. One Army buddy recalls: "Everyone just loved the hell out of him."
Courtesy of Marcela Pardo
Friends say Juan Restrepo was always quick with a joke. One Army buddy recalls: "Everyone just loved the hell out of him."

She mustered the courage to mingle with the people on the theater's front patio, and she quickly became a celebrity. A veterans' advocate named Raul Mas, who organized the screening, introduced her and her family to former soldiers who had come to see the film. Marcela used to cry at the sight of people in uniform, but somehow she smiled for photos and said "thank you" to those who told her all the things she was used to hearing: "He was a hero." "He will never be forgotten." She appreciated the kind words but still feared she would be sick to her stomach.

In the theater, Marcela and her family sat in reserved seats in the middle, a few rows from the front. In case she became ill, she planned an exit strategy, still worrying that she might see her son kill another — the opposite of all that she knew of him.

The lights dimmed, and she tightly squeezed her cousins' hands. She was about to see a close-up of the war in Afghanistan. She would soon see the young men who fought along with her son continuing the fight without him. Some of them would die, and as it is with war, they would leave behind the secondary victims, the Marcelas who will spend their lives trying to recover from it.

Her story — the nearly four years since Juan Restrepo's death — is about the survivors who never get medals or recognition. Except this time, when Hollywood came calling.


"My son was killed, right?" Marcela said to the soldier and chaplain who came to her door July 22, 2007. It was three days after her 47th birthday, and the security guard from her Pembroke Pines gated neighborhood interrupted her while she was doing laundry to call and announce their arrival. It was about 3 p.m., and before the men could talk, she repeated, "They killed my son. They killed my son, right?"

Juan had been an Army medic — he was never supposed to be a target, she had rationalized. These two Army men did not belong in her garage. Usually, Marcela offers guests mango juice, homemade cake, or anything else she has on hand, but this day, she did not play welcoming hostess. The soldiers invited her into her own living room.

The younger of the two said some words — beautiful, traditional words about the U.S. government and the Army. She quickly forgot them, as though this scene played out in her sleep. Marcela's boyfriend at the time was there, and so was her mother, Gloria. Marcela and her family moved from Colombia when Juan was 6 and her oldest son, Ivan, who's now in law school in Colombia, was 9. Her mother speaks only broken English, so Marcela translated the soldiers' words for her.

"Sebastian was killed," she said, referring to Juan by his middle name. Gloria almost fainted. She laid down on the sofa.

"I want you to be him," Marcela told the younger of the men, wishing he was her son sitting in the living room with her instead of this soldier. "I want you to be him," she repeated. Her hand shook as she signed papers given to her by the chaplain.

Juan enlisted in the Army in February 2006 without telling anyone. He had spent the previous year in Colombia, and the girl he was dating there was pregnant. Marcela, who hates war, accepted his decision. He was acting responsibly, and she couldn't fault him for that. It wasn't supposed to last forever, just six years.

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10 comments
Cheryl Foster
Cheryl Foster

Leslie, this is an excellent story and you are a great writer. That said, I have to agree with the other comments. The title is quite misleading and that's a shame because as I said this is an excellent story. Please consider changing the title of this. Think of Tim's own family who are surely in their own hell and how they might feel to see others trying to take advantage of the tragedy to promote their own stories. This story is good enough without that.

41727961eb
41727961eb

What is his mother's own fight? Getting recognition for Restrepo's buddies or the film makers or getting back at the administration for still being in countries that don't want us or will let us win? What was the purpose of this piece? I don't get it.

Guest #2
Guest #2

Hi Leslie - I did read the entire article...YES, IT IS DEFINITELY WORTH READING! As beautiful and touching as the story is about Juan Sabastian Restrepo and his Mother, (which by the way is a story that should be told and screamed from the mountain tops) I think the problem here is, the title makes it sound like your story is about Tim's own Mother. I think this is just a case of bad timing. I hope. As someone who knew Tim...I kindly ask you to PLEASE RECONSIDER THE TITLE - it is very misleading. Perhaps, you can change it to: Now, Juan Restrepo's Mother Has Her Own Fight...which is very poignant and would honor all involved as well.

Guest
Guest

I'm sure this is a nice story, but I stopped reading when I realized it had nothing at all to do with Tim Hetherington. I'm not sure why his name is in the headline at all actually except maybe to try to capitalize on the recent news involving him, hoping people like me will find it on my google alerts. If that is indeed the case, it is incredibly disgusting. Again, I didn't read the entire article, and if that's not the case I apologize deeply, but putting a murdered man's name in a headline of a story that hasn't nothing to do with him just to get hits is beyond exploitation and if that's what this is there should be a public apology issued.

Leslie Minora
Leslie Minora

Thanks for your comment. After reading yours and the others, we changed the title for clarity.

Leslie Minora
Leslie Minora

Now I see what you're saying, although I had not read it that way. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. We'll take another look at it.

Heaven Sent
Heaven Sent

what's the difference between a war photographer who makes his name from photos of other people's suffering and becomes world famous from it and what has happened here?I can't see any difference.

Leslie Minora
Leslie Minora

I hope the article is worth reading despite Hetherington's death -- in fact, I think his death makes the need for this kind of story more poignant than ever, and I hope you will take the time to revisit it. If you read on, my story shows the way lives lost at war affect others at home. Hetherington's death has been felt by so many people touched by his life and his work, and 'Restrepo' was a result of his incredible talent. So, I sincerely hope that my article is worth reading, especially following this tragedy. It is meant to honor all of the people involved -- not to exploit them, so I want to immediately make that clear. The timing of this piece was purely coincidental, but it's impossible to ignore this week's tragedy. As for the headline, it's states exactly what the story is about. To not give Hetherington credit for his work would be a far worse offense.

 
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