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January 21, 2013

Women's war experiences compiled for documentary

PITTSBURGH — The soldier scanned the room of well-wishers during her homecoming from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. She caught sight of a young girl and remarked to someone nearby how cute she was.

The veteran did not recognize her own daughter.

The story is one of thousands JulieHera DeStefano heard while compiling interviews for her documentary, "Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home."

"This is my intended purpose," said DeStefano, 40, a Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama graduate who splits her time between Gibsonia and New York.

DeStefano spent 3½ months in late 2010 and early 2011 touring Afghanistan, interviewing 100 female veterans about their thoughts and fears as they prepared for the end of their deployments. She followed up with several upon their return home.

She asked a simple question — "What do you want us to know?" — to delve into social, emotional and psychological challenges they face but don't always talk about.

"I went over there expecting to hear about hot-button issues like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide," DeStefano said. "I did hear about those things. But generally it's the adjustment they're afraid of. They've left their homes and families where they are mother, wife, sister, daughter.

"They've been removed for a year, and life goes on in their absence. How do you get back into that role?"

According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, women make up 15 percent of the active-duty military. Although excluded from official combat roles, many deployed female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to direct fire while serving in support roles.

They cope with problems unique to them.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports one in five women in the military say they've experienced sexual trauma while serving, compared with one in 100 men. Female veterans are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Inspiration for "Journey to Normal" came from a 2009 episode of the "Oprah Winfrey Show." DeStefano watched an Iraq veteran talk about the first time her daughter asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after her return. It was a task the mother had performed countless times, but she realized she could never make that meal the same way again — she had lost an arm in service.

"It's something that literally altered the course of my life," DeStefano said.

Soon after, DeStefano participated in the Pennsylvania Hero Walk, a Wounded Warrior Project event that involved walking cross-state with veterans and supporters.

Lt. Col. Tom Stokes, an Army reservist and licensed clinical social worker, saw a newspaper article about the walk that mentioned DeStefano and contacted her. He told her that if she really wants to understand what female veterans endure, she had to go overseas.

"Women are getting shot at. They are going through the combat experience, even if it's not labeled as such," Stokes said. "The things women bring to the combat zone, such dedication and focus, it would be great for somebody to be able to put that out to the American public."

Five months later, DeStefano flew to Afghanistan. The women were quick to open up to her.

"They feel very torn between two things they love," DeStefano said. "They love and believe in their military service. That doesn't mean they love being a daughter, sister, mother any less.

"They also feel societal pressure. People ask how they can leave their children and go to war."

Many civilians have little understanding of the military's mission in Afghanistan, let alone the roles women play in it, said Devon Reyes, an Army captain interviewed for "Journey to Normal."

"The subject of females in the military automatically relates the family to the military," said Reyes, 27, of Fort Hood, Texas, where her husband and fellow serviceman, Alberto, is stationed. "Since the beginning of time, men fought wars. Now it's larger than a bunch of guys with buzz cuts. Having women in the military makes it bleed into everything else."

Reyes, now an inactive reservist, is pregnant with their first child.

"I miss having the opportunity to get in front of people and lead them," she said. "You have an automatic sense of purpose when you put that uniform on."

"Journey to Normal" is as much about studying society's reaction to female veterans as it is about their experience of coming home, said co-producer Andrew Swensen.

"The military as an institution is at the forefront of civil rights," said Swensen, 47, of McCandless. "It's completely blind. When you come back, it's a different burden of social expectations."

Editing of the documentary should be completed in a few months. Swensen intends to introduce it at fall film festivals and then get it into theaters nationwide.

DeStefano worked from the home of her mother, Jocqueline DeStefano, who died in September at 79. DeStefano believes her mother is helping guide the project.

"I am way out on a limb, and I've never been prouder or more confident," she said.

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

 

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