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Documentary on war, 'Restrepo', chills slain soldier's mother

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 mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Restrepo

The documentary is playing at the Regal Citrus Park Theaters.

Documentary on war, 'Restrepo', chills slain soldier's mother 08/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 9:43pm]
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