Fallen Marine Jorge “JV” Villarreal had the foresight to ensure the training and combat footage he was capturing would live on in the event he was killed in action, which was his unfortunate fate.
Jorge “JV” Villarreal had the foresight to ensure the training and combat footage he was capturing would live on in the event he was killed in action. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew Gonzales

Jorge “JV” Villarreal knew from an early age that he wanted to be a Marine. His big sister April Rodriguez remembers him talking about it since second grade, though she’s not sure what prompted his interest.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan while Villarreal was in middle school on San Antonio’s West Side, and both he and his sister figured the war would be over by the time he was old enough to enlist. But the war raged on, and Villarreal eventually joined up after graduating from Kennedy High School, trained at Camp Pendleton in Southern California and was dispatched to the Helmand Province in 2010.

A few months later, Villarreal was killed in action after stepping on an improvised explosive device.

Thanks to footage he made during his training and combat tour, Villareal’s story will live on. His videos form the core of American Sons, a documentary film slated to air on PBS next year.

A free work-in-progress screening of American Sons will take place March 28 at Family Service Neighborhood Place, sponsored by the Edgewood District Veterans and the Bexar County Military and Veterans Services Center. The screening is part of an effort to raise funds to finish the film in advance of its nationwide broadcast.

His footage survived

U.S. Marine Corps procedure is to wipe the electronic devices of service members killed in action, but the ease of sharing digital images and videos in today’s world of smartphones and social media meant Villarreal’s footage lived on.

Rodriguez found her brother’s self-told story so compelling that she was determined to make something of it. She researched on the internet looking for a documentarian she felt would relate to the material and found Laura Varela, an experienced filmmaker from El Paso. 

Some of Jorge “JV” Villarreal's family members are seen in this still from the documentary. From left to right: Yolanda Villarreal, mother; April V. Rodriguez, sister; niece and nephew, Brooklynn and Noah Rodriguez.
(From left) Jorge “JV” Villarreal’s mother, Yolanda Villarreal, sister April V. Rodriguez, niece Brooklynn Rodriguez and nephew Noah Rodriguez are seen in a still from the documentary. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew Gonzales

Varela had made As Long As I Remember: American Veteranos, a feature-length documentary on Chicanos who had served in the Vietnam War. Even while occupied with other projects, she held onto the footage Rodriguez had provided and looked for an opportunity to work with it. 

Fellow filmmaker Andrew Gonzales responded to the candid nature of Villarreal’s footage and the rare chance to work from a Marine’s own point of view, and the two began working on American Sons as producer and director.

Years had passed and the 10th anniversary of Villarreal’s death was approaching. Varela and Gonzales decided to visit the Marines of India Battery 3/12, attached to the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines Regiment, 1st Division with whom Villareal had served.

“There were some patterns [of behavior] that were very apparent that a lot of the men were going through,” Varela said. Their stories became part of the project, “really trying to see what is that legacy of that particularly dangerous time in the war.”

Jorge “JV” Villarreal's sister April Rodriguez partnered with filmmaker Laura Varela to make something of her brother's footage.
Jorge “JV” Villarreal’s footage compelled his sister April Rodriguez to share his story. His videos form the core of American Sons, a documentary film slated to air on PBS next year. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew Gonzales

Rodriguez said her mission at first was to honor her brother. “I feel like it is one of the last things I could do for my brother was to make sure that his story was told through his eyes.”

What she didn’t expect was that, through the dedication of the filmmakers, the documentary could evolve “into so much more, and truly understanding the brotherhood that is the Marine Corps … seeing their points of view and how they dealt with loss and trauma, and helping them heal as well as them helping us heal.”

An intense brotherhood

Varela said Villarreal’s family holds a yearly memorial for him. It can take years for some of his Marines brotherhood to show up, she said, in part due to their difficulties in dealing with their own trauma.

San Antonio filmmakers Andrew Gonzales and Laura Varela are working to finish the production of the new PBS documentary <i>American Sons</i>.</i>
San Antonio filmmakers Andrew Gonzales and Laura Varela are working to finish the production of the new PBS documentary American Sons. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“Some of the men have died post-combat from drugs and alcohol and suicide,” Varela said. American Sons becomes a story about how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves these veterans versus how they deal with their issues on their own, and about “this intense brotherhood, the intense love of this new family healing,” she said.

Each Gold Star family — a family of military members who have died in the line of duty — loses a son, “but they gain all these other sons. It’s just a very beautiful look at [the question of] what are the ripple effects of war when we send our men to war?”

Gonzales said Villarreal’s maturation becomes apparent as his videos progress from the relatively innocent days of training at Camp Pendleton to the stark and brutal reality of combat. 

At first, “it’s like they’re getting ready for, you know, the championship football game or something. This is what they’ve been training for, for two years,” Gonzales said. Villarreal films his 22nd birthday party on the troop transport plane to Afghanistan, with everyone celebrating and trash-talking. 

“Then before you know it, things just get real,” Gonzales said. Villareal “sees too many things. His friends are getting blown up. And you start to see him slowly change in his demeanor. Even visually he begins to change — that’s the best way I can put it — the boy becomes a man in his own footage.”

‘Our sorrow, his honor’

The film will get finished, Gonzales assured, despite still needing to raise funds to meet its budget. The post-production process is complex with many facets requiring multiple skill sets, he said, but he and Varela are prepared to work on a bare-bones budget to complete the project.

The work-in-progress screening, featuring about 15 minutes of the one-hour film, will “create an opportunity to allow San Antonio to come together and learn more about something that’s very important to the community,” Gonzales said. 

Rodriguez said she is grateful to have such dedicated filmmakers working to bring the project to completion. 

“It’s our sorrow, but his honor, to be able to have done this,” she said of producing a documentary based on the footage Villarreal made before his death. “Because I know it’s what he wanted to do with his life, and he was willing to pay that price.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...