Juan "Doc" Restrepo, a 20-year-old Army medic from Pembroke Pines, appears only twice in the new documentary bearing his name. On a train in Italy, he mugs for the camera. South Beach shades cover his eyes, and a huge grin spreads across his face.
"Tune in next time, where we're still going to be lovin' life — and getting ready for war," Restrepo says to the camera.
Juan "Doc" Restrepo
A few weeks later, shortly after his platoon arrives in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, two bullets shatter Restrepo's face. He dies in a helicopter on the way to a hospital.
The young soldier's sacrifice garnered barely a mention in the Miami Herald when it happened in 2007, but his platoon — stuck in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan — rallied around his memory, naming a remote outpost after him and then fighting like hell to keep "OP Restrepo" secure from the Taliban.
"He had a big heart, an amazing smile, and he was a great guitar player," Maj. Dan Kearney, the platoon's commander, says in an interview with New Times. "Losing him as soon as we did into the deployment was a big impact. He was the guy they called to... looking for comfort."
The platoon's epic struggle is captured in Restrepo, a fly-on-the-wall masterpiece by Sebastian Junger that won the Grand Jury Prize earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Junger's work is apolitical. If the soldiers worry about the policy that's landed them the almost impossible task of making the Korengal safe without alienating the people who live there, they don't argue about it on film.
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Instead, they play Hawaiian ditties, grapple desperately with their friends' violent deaths, and just try to survive 15 months in hell.
In its last frames, the film — which opens in Miami-Dade July 23 at AMC Theatres Aventura 24 — casts ambiguity on the struggle, when viewers learn the Army abandoned the valley soon after Restrepo's platoon left Afghanistan.
Still, Kearney says the "lovin' life" kid didn't die for naught.
"We can throw money at our problems all day long, but finding young men and women to go out and do what Juan did isn't easy," Kearney says. "I can honestly walk away from Afghanistan knowing that Restrepo and the rest of us made an impact there."