A Nebraska teen's senior photos honored her father who was killed in Afghanistan

Posted at 5:51 AM, Aug 21, 2019

It's been "extremely, extremely" tough growing up without her father, Julia Yllescas tells CNN. "It gets harder and harder every year."

Army Ranger Capt. Robert Yllescas never came home after he deployed to Afghanistan when Julia was 7 years old.

As she started her last year of high school in Aurora, Nebraska, she had a photographer edit an angelic visage of her father into her senior photos so that he could be with her during the most monumental moment of her life.

He'll be portrayed in an upcoming film

Her father was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2008. He was flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he succumbed to his injuries a month later.

He figures prominently in CNN anchor Jake Tapper's book "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," released in 2012.

Milo Gibson, the son of Mel Gibson, will play Yllescas in an upcoming film based on the book to be released later this year.

Julia said she and her mother will be in the audience at a private screening of the film in Washington this October before it hits theaters. She'll watch a scene that shows her dad walking across a bridge, a moment that ultimately leads to his death.

The photos struck a chord

Photographer Susanne Beckmann said she has taken photos of Julia since she was 9 years old.

She posted the photos on Sunday night and they were an immediate sensation on Facebook.

"This was just supposed to be something special I was doing for one of my customers," Beckmann told CNN. "I've never seen a reaction like this to my photos."

She's gotten calls from families wanting to do the same thing with photos of their lost loved ones.

Julia remembers her dad in the simple moments

More than a decade later, Julia's grief is still palpable. "It hurts and it's absolutely suffocating," she says. It can hit even in random moments, and simple things can "bring the heartache back up to the surface."

He couldn't be there for the first day of freshman year or her first breakup. He hadn't seen her perform as a cheerleader or in the school choir.

Julia remembers the moments growing up near bases in Texas and Georgia where she says her father "was a jokester" and often played tricks on her.

She also remember how she often wrestled him. "He was a good dad and always let me win," she said.

If she got a chance to see her father again, "I would ask him if he's proud of me," she said.

"And I would ask to go to the lake with him."

They loved boating and eating popsicles.

When she was a little girl, she and her dad started building a boat out of popsicle sticks, a tribute of sorts to two mutual loves.

They weren't finished yet when Robert got the call to go to Afghanistan.

The little wooden boat remains unfinished to this day. "I wouldn't feel right finishing it without him," Julia said.

But with these new senior photos, she's finding ways to still keep her father by her side.

"I can't even put into words how it makes me feel, knowing he's still with me," Julia said.