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.
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.