Alejandro J Pardo
July 8, 2012
Killed when enemy forces attacked their unit in Maidan Shahr, Wardak province, Afghanistan, with an improvised explosive device.
| Documentary on war, 'Restrepo', chills slain soldier's mother
By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010 8:37pm
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.
|6 fallen MPs of Fort Bliss remembered
By Joe Gould
Of the Afghan children who would swarm Pfc. Cameron Stambaugh for candy, his favorite was a clever 4-year-old girl. From the turret of his vehicle, he put his eyes 100 feet away to show her where to be to catch the candy. She caught it, hid it in her backpack and ran so the boys could not steal it.
Later, Stambaugh slipped money to the girl’s father, probably because he was raised to be generous in the Pentecostal church. He gave money to a struggling soldier on his team, and he once gave $1,000 to his brother for a motorcycle. He never expected anything in return.
“Our mother, she raised us up through the church,” said Stambaugh’s brother, Pvt. Jeffrey Stambaugh, a military policeman at Fort Hood, Texas. “She always taught us to put God first, other people second and us last.”
Cameron Stambaugh, 20, was excited for an upcoming promotion to specialist, his brother said, and likely would have been made team leader.
He was one of six soldiers, all from the 978th Military Police Company, 93rd Military Police Battalion, of Fort Bliss, Texas, who were killed July 8 in a massive roadside blast in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak province.
The blast occurred at 8 p.m. Afghanistan time. The improvised explosive device, reportedly estimated to contain more than 200 pounds of explosives, went off under their mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The Taliban have since taken credit for the attack, Stars and Stripes reported.
The soldiers’ deaths marked one of the most violent days in Afghanistan in months and the deadliest for Fort Bliss since nine soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company were killed in Iraq in 2003.
The soldiers killed July 8 were on their first deployments:
* Spc. Trevor Adkins, 21, of Spring Lake, N.C.
* Spc. Erica Alecksen, 21, of Eatonton, Ga.
* Spc. Alejandro “A.J.” Pardo, 21, of Porterville, Calif.
* Staff Sgt. Ricardo “Ricky” Seija, 31, of Tampa, Fla.
* Spc. Cameron Stambaugh, 20, of Spring Grove, Pa.
* Spc. Clarence Williams III, 23, of Brooksville, Fla.
Cameron Stambaugh was promoted to specialist posthumously.
They fought together and died together. They helped each other and trusted each other.
“They rolled out on every mission together, and I’m sure they prayed together for safety,” said Jeffrey Stambaugh. “They were pretty much like brothers. When you’re down there, you’re thinking you might die every single day. You hold on to what you’ve got, and they were very close.”
There have been 23 MPs killed since the last memorial ceremony in September at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., home of the Army Military Police School.
“When I think of the loss of six in one day, what I focus on is the individual sacrifice of each soldier,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Inch, the school’s commandant and regimental commander. “Each made a sacrifice, [and that] is what we recognize, not the aggregate.”
Providing support for maneuver and mobility for troops who must move among the populace to conduct stability operations, MPs know they have a job that is important and dangerous.
“The soldiers at the school are with drill sergeants who have real-life experience,” Inch said. “I don’t think, to the soldiers, what they face is any surprise or mystery.”
‘Shot at every other day’
Just a short drive from Kabul, the city of Maidan Shahr was rife with violence and Taliban intimidation, according to press accounts. In recent months, girls had reportedly stopped attending a local high school. The Taliban were threatening shopkeepers to shut down local markets.
Like beat cops, the MP team would patrol the area. Their mission was to train and mentor local Afghan police who are themselves in peril. Ten local policemen were killed in a single roadside bomb attack in April.
Cameron Stambaugh told his father and his brother that he was being shot at every other day. A rocket-propelled grenade once flew past his vehicle, snapping off the rearview mirror, he told his brother.
“From Day One, it wasn’t good at all where they were at,” said Stambaugh’s father, Mitchell Stambaugh, of Spring Grove, Pa. “There was one [roadside bomb] three weeks ago, and he watched a truck in the convoy in front of him explode.”
Cameron Stambaugh’s best friend and main Xbox buddy was Adkins, whom he met in MP school, but the entire team was tight, Jeffrey Stambaugh said, because it had to be.
“They have to trust their battle buddy,” Jeffrey Stambaugh said. “Your team has to be looking 360 degrees, and you can’t be looking in your buddy’s sector. You have to trust him with your life — all six of them.”
Frequent roadside bomb attacks destroyed vehicles or worse. In May, a close call with a bomb left a gash in Cameron Stambaugh’s right forearm that required several stitches.
On June 27, a roadside bomb attack in Maidan Shahr killed two soldiers: 1st Lt. Stephen C. Prasnicki, 24, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, in Bamberg, Germany, and Sgt. James L. Skalberg Jr., 25, of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas.
Back home, Stambaugh’s mother, Pamela Smith, of Hanover, Pa., had recurring dreams of Cameron in his uniform or coming home. To her, it was a warning he would die.
“I believe that God prepared me so that I would have peace, knowing he was going home with the Lord,” she said.
After Mitchell Stambaugh heard six soldiers had been killed in eastern Afghanistan, he sent his son a Facebook message: “Please tell me you’re okay buddy.”
There was no answer, and when he arrived home from the third shift at the paper mill to find police cars in his driveway, he knew.
Spc. Trevor Adkins
In life,�Trevor Adkins didn’t want to be called a hero, but that is just how he will be known.
“People called him a hero,” his stepfather, Hartzell Haines, told WTVD-TV in Raleigh-Durham. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m no hero. I was just doing my job. It was my job. I was doing it so other people can live free.’”
Adkins, a graduate of Overhills High School in Spring Lake, N.C., joined the Army in 2010.
Carolyn Haines said her son Trevor died |living his dream.
“I was at peace knowing my baby was back home,” she told WTVD-TV. “I guess I know where is — he is back home. He is an American hero even though he doesn’t want to be called one, but he is and we in [this] country are free because of people like my son.”
Spc. Erica Alecksen
Crisp, stoic and matter-of-fact, Erica Alecksen, was almost waiting to become an MP as a child.
“If there was something she didn’t like, you never heard it from her,” said Alecksen’s grandfather, retired executive Harold Huggins. “If there was something she did like, she might say something but not dwell on it.”
From a young age, Alecksen and her younger brother Charles were assigned duties at her father’s repair shop where classic cars were restored from junk to their former glory.
Alecksen was smart but not college-bound, and there were few employment options in Eatonton, an hour north of Macon, Ga. She made a five-year commitment to the Army and planned to make it a career.
Inch, who spoke at Alecksen’s funeral, said they told a story there about how she chose to be an MP. She asked a retired general at her church for career advice. One job he told her about involved protecting soldiers and their families.
“That’s what I want to do,” she said. “I want to protect people.”
It turned out that the tough, dirty garage work made her mature and unflappable, perfectly prepared for the rigors of basic training. Toward the end of basic, her drill sergeant let her know how impressed he was.
Most girls, within the first couple of weeks and many times throughout this training, will cry, he told her. Yet she never did. Why?
“My father was a disciplinarian, and he was tough,” she explained. “He’d make a good drill sergeant, so the way you treated me was the way I was accustomed.”
Alecksen’s family was devastated. Her brother Charles, a JROTC student, idolized her, Huggins said.
Alecksen’s brother wrote in a Facebook message that although she cannot respond, he talks to her every day.
“I lost my brother in World War II, and I felt the same void,” Huggins said. “I’ve never felt anything like that in my entire life, and that was in 1945. This was like d�j� vu. You can cry, and you do cry, but it doesn’t change anything.”
Spc. Alejandro “A.J.” Pardo
The Cubs are difficult team to love — even for Chicagoans. Nevertheless, Californian A.J. Pardo was a rabid fan.
It all stemmed from a two-week youth ministry trip to Chicago and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said Monsignor Scott Daugherty of St. Anne’s Parish in Porterville, Calif. Pardo was one of only a few in the youth ministry to be invited.
Participants were taken to a Cubs game, and Pardo was hooked. He told people he planned to open a pizzeria in Chicago after he got out of the Army.
Pardo did not have a strong religious background when he became involved at St. Anne’s seven years ago, Daugherty said. Yet he was active from the start.
“He emerged as a leader, he asked all the right questions,” Daugherty said. “He really had a spirit of service about him. He wanted to be involved and go the extra mile.”
Pardo embraced spirituality training and Scripture, making all the sacraments, confirmation and Holy Communion among them.
“He had what I’d call a very prayerful attitude,” Daugherty said. “He was special that way, more than just a high school life.”
Pardo joined the Army in 2009, soon after graduating from Granite Hills High School. His brother is also a soldier.
“He said, ‘If we don’t, who will?’” Daugherty said of Pardo.
At St. Anne’s, parishioners departing for the armed forces receive a special blessing at Mass, and after Mass, everyone has the opportunity to place their hands on the person.
“That’s what happened for A.J. before he left,” Daugherty said. “A lot of people were aware of his deployment.”
Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija
“It was definitely thick because some of the things he would say, from the first phone call to the last phone call, [were] that things were getting worse and worse and worse,” said one of Ricardo’s older brothers, Eddie.
Ricardo Seija did not go into detail, but one of the last times they spoke, he started to tell his brother not to be mad at the Army if something happened to him.
“Before he could finish the sentence, I said, ‘You better shut the eff up, man up and watch over your troops,’” said Eddie Seija. He wanted his brother to focus on surviving, not dying.
“I know he loved his comrades, so if I told him to watch his troops, it would ease his mind,” Eddie Seija said.
Ricardo Seija was the squad leader.
He and his brothers were athletic in high school, all folkstyle wrestlers.
“We were the infamous Seija brothers,” said Yunis Seija.
A competitive cross-country runner, Ricardo Seija baffled his fellow soldiers by running six-minute miles even though he smoked a pack of Newports a day.
He was a shy, well-mannered kid who wore thick-framed glasses, then got tough as a wrestler, winning medals and tournaments, his brothers said. He joined the Army in 1999 and came home from a posting to South Korea too huge for his brothers to beat him.
He was good-natured, his brothers said. The younger soldiers kidded him, calling him “gramps.” He would let loose a low, goofy chuckle that everyone loved.
“Once you knew him and he knew you, you were opened up to his world — just his laugh, his jokes, his facial expressions,” Eddie Seija said.
Eddie Seija told his brother to get out of the Army and be a bodyguard in Hollywood, but he would just laugh.
“I said, ‘Dude, you should be working for Britney Spears or [Justin] Bieber,’” Eddie Seija said.
Seija’s brothers said the soldiers in his unit might be angry and want revenge on the Taliban. All the Seijas want is for them to stay focused on their jobs.
“Anybody who loved him,” Eddie Seija said, “be safe and come home.”
Spc. Cameron Stambaugh
Jeffrey Stambaugh was born 11 months after Cameron, but they were inseparable ever after.
They hunted for deer and fished together in the Tuscarora Mountains, and they worked together at a McDonald’s in Hanover through high school.
Cameron asked to be taken off the register to work the grill with his brother. From the back, they liked to crack up their co-workers or entertain them when they were down.
They loved their motorcycles. Cameron rode a Suzuki GSX-R750, and Jeffrey rode a Kawasaki Ninja 636.
Mitchell Stambaugh said the Suzuki went into his garage before his son left for Fort Bliss and was now outside, the center of a memorial where flowers have been piling up by the day.
Inspired by their grandfather’s and stepfather’s service in World War II and Desert Storm, respectively, the brothers made a pact to become military police and enter law enforcement afterward. They each signed up at 17 years old in deals with the Army to secure jobs as MPs.
Cameron, because he was first, told Jeffrey what to expect in MP school at Fort Leonard Wood and basic training before it, soothing his brother’s nerves.
“The drill sergeants make it like it’s hopeless, you’re all alone and you can’t do anything right,” Jeffrey said. “He told me I just have to get through it and be mentally strong, that it’s going to get better.”
Their stepfather, Arnold Smith, said he prepared the brothers for the service. As military police, he told them, he was 100 percent sure they would go to Afghanistan and face real danger.
“Just to enlist, they were very brave, because I didn’t pull any punches with them,” Smith said. “They joined knowing that. They made a brave decision.”
Spc. Clarence Williams III
The last time Abrill Edwards spoke to her older brother, Clarence Williams III, he shared with her how Afghanistan had reaffirmed his strong Christian faith, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
“He told me how precious he knew life was, just being around a bunch of killing,” Edwards told the newspaper. “He told me he read his Bible every day and he knew he was covered by God. He wasn’t worried.”
Hours later, the family received the news that he had been killed.
Williams was an avid hog hunter and fisherman who was happiest in the woods or in the water, the Times reported. He played football at Hernando High School and sang in the choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Brooksville.
Their father, Clarence Williams Jr., is a corporal with the Florida Highway Patrol who served in the Army and is still in the Reserve.
Williams wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and experience some adventure beyond Brooksville, so he enlisted in 2009 for five years.
The family's strong faith, Edwards said, is helping them cope. They know he’s watching them.
“He’s home,” Edwards told the newspaper, standing in her parents’ front yard. “He’s in heaven. That’s better than this home.”
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