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.
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.
In the Army, Juan was quiet until he was comfortable, as he was in any new situation, but once he settled in, he was hilarious, recalls Army friend Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne. "You couldn't get mad at the guy," Brendan said. "Everyone just loved the hell out of him."
Juan, athletic with a wide white smile that put people at ease, would play Led Zeppelin and Metallica on his guitar without a mistake when the troops were unwinding from combat or trying to relax. Before their Afghanistan deployment, he would run about three miles every Saturday when they were in Italy to play soccer with the Italians, then run back to base, even after a night of partying.
In Afghanistan, Juan took it to heart when they lost the first soldier. He couldn't have saved him from a head wound, but he cried and repeated, "But that was my job." Throughout life, he had been good at just about everything, but at war, he was up against something much bigger than anything he'd ever faced.
In July 2007, his third month in Afghanistan, Juan called Jorge Gonzalez, a childhood friend from Pembroke Pines. First he tried his cell phone and then his house. It was about 3:30 a.m. in Florida, and Jorge's mom, awakened from sleep, picked up the phone. Juan was never one to call so late at night — he was mindful of these things. Jorge's mother, who was like Juan's second mother, as Marcela was to Jorge, passed the call to her son.
Half-asleep, Jorge asked, "You OK?"
Before Juan went to war, the best friends used to skateboard around the neighborhood together. Juan rode his old board until three of its seven layers chipped away from the bottom and the grip tape on top shredded. "That was his pride and joy," Jorge said of the scraggly board, "I still have it — that and his guitar." Jorge also has a tattoo on his side of the music to "Stairway to Heaven," Juan's favorite song. It's a simple design, like a slice from sheet music, because that's just the way Jorge thinks Juan would have liked it, practical and not overdone.
On the phone that night, Juan told Jorge, "I don't know. This is so hard." Juan acknowledged that it was the middle of the night in Florida and cut the call short — he just wanted to say hi, he told Jorge.
That was less than a week before the Army officers walked into Marcela's garage.
Marcela couldn't justify burying Juan in America. This was the country that killed him, she thought. She was angry with the president and the Army and wanted someone to blame for her consuming loss. She held her middle son's funeral in Colombia, where he was born. She stayed there for two weeks with her youngest son, Pablo, now 10 years old.
After she returned home, she resumed work a week later. Her clients with cerebral palsy needed her care, and a sense of responsibility drew her back to her routine. As she had for many years, she drove to daycare centers and homes around South Florida to help disabled children. This time, she could not stop crying on car rides between jobs. It lasted two weeks until, finally, she quit. She was financially stable with money from the Army for the loss of her son — $400,000 that was as necessary to Marcela as it was repulsive.
Three months after her son's death, Marcela laid down on an operating table. Her sister had convinced her that she needed to do something for herself. Three pregnancies had left a pouch in her lower stomach, so she decided on a tummy tuck. As doctors placed a mask on her face, she faded, able to finally rest soundly.
Marcela knew the implied risk of any surgery, and a part of her hoped it would be an exit plan. Maybe she simply wouldn't wake up. "I didn't care about anyone," she recalls. "I didn't care about anything."
Marcela came to in a recovery room, woozy from anesthesia. Her first thought was of Juan's little brother, Pablo. "When I woke up, I said to myself, 'God didn't want me to die because I need to take care of Pablo," she said. "Then I realized I had to keep living."
A year after Juan's death, she thought it would help her and Pablo to move to Colombia, where Ivan and most of her family lived. The transition wasn't as comforting as she had hoped. "I felt like I was in jail," she said. There, she was constantly trying to calm her own anxiety while consoling the rest of her family. "At that moment, you don't have mind or energy to help others," Marcela said. Some days she felt like she was going crazy. For a long time, Marcela preferred not talking about Juan's death. At that time, the Latin woman with a strong Spanish accent and smile marks lightly etched in her skin was uncharacteristically solemn.
She returned to Florida less than three months after moving to Colombia but couldn't bring herself to settle back into the house where the soldiers came and sat in her living room, the same home where she raised all three of her children.
When he was a teenager, Juan would sit on the roof of that house and drink beer with Jorge. Marcela would tell the boys that if they fall, they better replace what they break, Jorge recalled, laughing. "Restrepo would never lie to her," he said, "and on the rare occasion he tried, she would know immediately."
Marcela, Pablo, and Gloria moved into a smaller, one-story home ten minutes from their old neighborhood. On the first anniversary of Juan's death, Marcela met Jorge for dinner at El Mariachi, a Spanish restaurant near Pembroke Pines. It was the first time the two of them ate together without Juan, and Jorge could see that she was hurting through the strained conversation. He did his best to dissipate the heaviness with stories and jokes, but he didn't want to make light of things either. Kidding too much would remind her of his relationship with Juan, whom he describes as Marcela's "genetic model" because they were so similar.
Marcela spent two years in counseling and overcame her initial anger at the loss of her son. She developed an interest in spiritual healing and meditation and studied Sintergética, a Latin alternative medicine. She calls it her period of "personal growing." She searched for spiritual answers that eluded her, answers that she needed for forgiveness and closure. "I needed something to hold on to to understand life and to understand death," Marcela says. "I thought it was so unfair that he died."
After moving back to Florida, Marcela learned that the movie bearing her son's name was slated for release. The details of that first call when she learned about it have been lost in the cloudy memories of those months after her son's death. "I hardly remember my name," she said, her grief fogging many specifics. But she was glad. "I was happy because I thought that it was one of his dreams to be known by people," she said. Before his death, though, she had expected he would be known as a soccer star or a guitar player, never a war hero.
Marcela raised Juan as a single mother, and he strove to protect her, especially financially. He worked through high school and bought his own car, a Saturn that Jorge describes as "highlighter green." It was a flashy choice for an understated teenager who usually wore Vans sneakers and a T-shirt, but it was a bargain: It got great gas mileage, and it was "dent-proof," the same way Jorge describes his best friend. Juan survived a motorcycle accident with his cousin in Colombia; in Florida, he paddled for an hour against a riptide until he outswam it; and in Italy, where he was stationed before his Afghanistan deployment, he was in a jeep with other soldiers coming home from a night out when they crashed and rolled over several times. He walked away with only headaches, but he wouldn't use them as an excuse to avoid the war, as Marcela suggested.
Juan told Jorge, "I'm unbreakable."
Jorge understood Juan more deeply in the context of Marcela, and his friend Brendan from the Army felt that way too. "When we met his mother, it all made sense," Brendan said. "More than anything, we always hear about the soldiers... The real badasses are the families — the Marcelas in the world... It's like that helpless feeling every day. How do you move on from that?"
When Marcela sat in the silent dark of the University of Miami theater in July 2010, the opening scene cut to her son, laughing and joking with other soldiers, practically alive again in home video footage. He was riding a train in Italy before his Afghanistan deployment began.
"Tonight is gonna be crazy," Juan says, smiling widely with a hint of boyish sarcasm. "You can't tame the beast." From there, the film heads to Afghanistan and details the near daily fighting by the men who served with Juan. In the next scene, a roadside bomb almost kills a Humvee of young men.
The film did not show whether Juan killed anyone, but it was a lens directly into the constant combat the soldiers faced in the Korengal Valley. It was an honor for Marcela to see her son memorialized onscreen but also a painful reminder. As the credits rolled, the audience rose to its feet and clapped as Marcela and her family huddled together, tearfully squeezing one another.
Marcela saw the film again less than a month later at a theater in Aventura. Again, Juan's face flashed on the screen, smiling with his wide toothy grin and joking as though he were on his way to a party, not a war. Marcela had arrived late to this showing, and a couple had already sat beside her mother, so she sat next to them. Marcela didn't realize it immediately, but the woman had interviewed her for a Spanish radio show. Oneyda Anturi and her husband, Gene Napolitano, introduced themselves.
As they talked, Marcela told them that she would love to meet the soldiers who knew her son. Gene remembers thinking, "Let's do something extraordinary for this woman."
Through his local charity organization, Roman Centurions, Gene last August organized a dinner for Marcela sponsored by business owners and friends at Restaurante Monserrate in Coral Gables. Gene invited Marcela's family and friends, the event's sponsors, and two soldiers who were stationed with Juan in Afghanistan. Marcela had no idea her son's Army friends would be there.
She doesn't recall eating that night. Throughout most of the event, she mingled at the front of the room, near the projector screen that flashed photos of her son and scenes from Restrepo. As the room full of guests ate dinner, Gene, Jorge, and Marcela's family members took the microphone to offer their words about Juan.
"Once you broke that barrier into his inner circle," Jorge said to the crowd, "that was it... he literally would give his life." During the speech, a photo of him and his best friend laughing and straightening each others' ties on their prom night flashed on the screen.
As Gene offered words about Juan's bravery at war, Marcela faced the projector, watching the images from Restrepo flash by. While her back faced the crowd, Brendan and Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, faces recognizable to anyone who has seen Restrepo, quietly entered the room in uniform. They stood in the back for a short time until Marcela turned and recognized them. Her eyes widened, then fixated on the soldiers as they walked toward her. She looped her hands around Brendan's waist and wept, then hugged Misha tightly, tears coming steadily. The two men were among the last to see her son alive.
"I have to tell you this," Marcela said to the soldiers and the crowd watching, "I never ever hated the kid who killed him." She continued: "He's with God right now. We have to go ahead, live our lives, and think of him like the nice person he was."
On the night of the Academy Awards, Marcela sank into her couch in front of her big-screen TV. She had spent the day at a meditation conference and still wore the black blouse and slacks she had put on in the morning. She sat among her mother, two cousins, Gene, his wife, and a family friend. Her cousins initially wanted to bring other guests, but Marcela preferred to keep it small. She wasn't in the right mind to host a big crowd on a night when a film named for her son might just win the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Marcela's mother, more energetic than she on this particular night, spoke in carefully chosen English, "Restrepo wins Oscar," Gloria said, cobbling together words and hand motions to show that she was visualizing this phrase in a newspaper headline.
The older woman, always dressed impeccably and with perfectly curled gray-blond hair that brushes her shoulders, wished she could go back to Colombia and scream, "I am Restrepo's grandmother!" As she said this with her Spanish accent, pumping her arms in front of her, tears gelled over her eyes, and she quickly walked into her bedroom, emerging a minute later with photos of her grandson.
She propped up the photos next to snacks and drinks on a folding wooden table in front of her. The breeze of the ceiling fan above kept causing the photos to drift to the floor. Marcela said they didn't matter — that her son was right here — as she patted the armrest next to her.
It took Marcela three years to become more open about the loss of her son, but she still regularly cries or laughs at difficult points in conversation. Both emotions come readily, laughter stronger than tears, even when it's in place of crying.
Marcela met Sebastian Junger, one of the filmmakers, for dinner a month before Restrepo was released. He remembers her asking if they killed the man who killed her son. Junger assumed that she hoped they had.
She told Sebastian that her son's shooter had chosen a path of violence and that she thought about the souls of all the soldiers. She told him she wished he was still alive. "I worry about that young man," Marcela said.
"That was maybe the single most incredible thing I've heard anyone say [throughout] this project," Sebastian told New Times by phone.
Marcela, not wasting the chance to learn more, also asked Sebastian how her son was killed. The more information she could gather, the more closure she gained. He hesitated at the question but obliged, explaining that Juan had been shot in the neck. "Very bravely, she listened through it," Sebastian said. He had already seen the way Juan's death affected the young men at war. "It would be like the most popular kid in high school dying in a car accident. Imagine, the effect on the platoon was the exact same as that... He was very handsome, and girls liked him, boys liked him. He was just one of those good people that people like."
As the Oscars aired, Pablo stayed in Marcela's bedroom, watching TV and coming out of the room only for a drink and a snack and to politely say hello to the guests. Finally, two hours into the program, at almost 10 p.m., Oprah Winfrey glided onto the stage in a black silk gown. "I'm here to present the award to the best movie that has not let us escape — the outstanding documentary of the year. And this was an incredible year for documentaries... It has never been more important for us to see these stories, to help us try to make some sense of the world we live in.
"Restrepo — Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger," she announced among the others. Marcela's son's name flashed on the screen with a quick montage of the Korengal Valley. She leaned forward, sitting on her left ankle, biting her bottom lip with her hands folded. "And the Oscar goes to...," Oprah said.
She didn't say Restrepo, but somehow no one in the room heard who won. Marcela exhaled and rocked back on the couch, her tension released — her lips pursed and her eyes filled. She didn't make a fuss but cried silently, as she and her cousin clenched each other. As Oprah said, the movie had not let her escape, but it was another step in cleaning the wound left by her son's death.