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A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University with a BFA in Drama, Julie Hera DeStefana is the Managing Director and Producer of an award-winning off-Broadway theater company as well as the Business Manager of a film and photography studio. Not afraid of getting in front of the camera, she has performed extensively on stage and in films including The Preacher’s Wife and The First Wives Club. Veteran Journal speaks with her about her new documentary, Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home, which tracks the lives of female warriors.
How did you come to make this film?
I literally sat down at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, thinking I was going to kick back and relax for an hour and I was watching Oprah and she had on four women. One woman told a story about how her young daughter asked her to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and she couldn’t because she had lost her arm in the war and this just brought home how her life had changed. I honestly wanted to know if deployment affected men and women differently.
That was 2009, and not much was out about veterans [and what it was like coming home] and I thought it would be helpful to see what it took to get through the transition.
So I heard about a Wounded Warrior Walk, and decided I wanted to do that. A gentleman from Pittsburg was here who happened to be home from leave. Lt. Col Thomas Stokes, a forward deployed behavior health interventionist, keeps people in the fight in combat zones – keeps them going. He told me, “If you want to succeed in telling the story of transition, you have to come to Afghanistan.”
I hadn’t even considered something like that. I was focused on the moment of transition. But I wasn’t going to pass that up. They cleared five months of red tape and right before Christmas in 2010, I was on a commercial flight to Kabul where I was embedded for three and a half months at the Regional Command East.
There were over 100 women there who shared their stories with me, what it was like to be deployed, what it was like coming home. I was surprised at how receptive people were. The truth is, if I had met with everyone who wanted to meet with me, I’d still be there.
Women were extremely candid with me and beautifully introspective. They talked about what it means to be in Afghanistan and how hard it was to transition back into the community.
What did you see in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist that you weren’t expecting?
I didn’t sit at Bagram [Airforce Base]; I was out. I wanted to understand combat on a different level. I had 24 helicopter drops into combat zones. I didn’t go on night missions, because women don’t typically go on those. I was accepted in that command as if I was part of that group.
There is so much that surprised me about the country and about the military, too. I was in New York on the morning of 9/11. For a long time, I didn’t care about who was over there; it shook my world in a profound way. I’m proud that I now see it differently. I expected to feel indifferent toward Afghanistan. Instead, I fell in love with it and the people. It has an ancient tribal culture.
The military’s presence is a very complex thing. Sometimes we are quick to have an opinion about military action, but not a gigantic opportunity to see how it plays out — how complex it is, but also how well the men and women over there are handling it. One-off things do happen, but the vast majority of what we do — we can be very proud of what is accomplished on a daily basis.
What is it like living in a war zone?
I somehow expected everything about the war zone to be bad. It is an awful, brutal set of circumstances. But in the middle of this hardship is this incredible commitment about what they are doing and how they are serving their families and country — and doing their children proud. I wish there was something in civilian culture that was like that here.
What did the women talk with you about?
Military women deploy, they come back, and are thankful. Something as simple as a bathroom inside, “I don’t have to crawl out in the middle of the night.” So coming home to the opulence that we take for granted — you can’t have lights on at night. You have to navigate in the black with a red penlight!
Some of the people talk about that scene in Hurt Locker where he walks into the store and is overwhelmed by the choices of cereal. That is true. There are so many things that we take for granted.
Are women dealing with pushback in field from this new order about women in combat?
The truth is that women have always been a part of war, but traditionally, as victims or in support roles rather than soldiers.
Traditionally, they are seen as emotional leaders in the home and in the community. I think that still may be true.
Yet, the military has a history of breaking societal barriers before civilians do. It is agnostic to color of skin or gender. They just want best people on the front lines.
I think [gender] matters less in the field. It matters whether or not you are pulling the trigger. People are threatened by what they don’t know, there will always be a segment of the population where that will be true. But in the military even if you do feel that way, you just shut mouth and do your mission. You focus on being a soldier, a marine, an airman.
I didn’t come with a political agenda. We’re an official nonprofit, so all donations go back into project so that we can keep going. I thought of the film as a vehicle for women warriors to tell stories the way they wanted to tell them; its different than what the media typically has the opportunity to show.
So what do women face when coming home?
For some women, that is the hardest question I asked them. What does coming home mean for you? That is a really basic question for us, yet many female soldiers relocate so often, they don’t even know where home is. The sergeant who said her home was in Las Vegas is based in Fort Knox.
That’s true for their kids as well. One of the women spoke about her stepson. Every time they moved, he had to leave his friends behind. What are the long term affects on their children? That is one of the things that women asked us to understand.
One of the things that they feel, is perhaps a disproportionate amount of pressure from society: “How can you leave your children? I couldn’t do that!” As if it is choice at that moment. Men and women stay in the military because of a commitment. Some put their lives on the line in order and do something larger than themselves. It is that sense of commitment that they are passionate about. But they are also passionate about being a wife, a lover, a mother. Still, there is no other job in the world that they want.
They are not making that decision to leave in that moment, but they do it willingly. Women put off getting pregnant because they know that a deployment is coming up. They feel that society reacts differently because they are women.
What truth did you discover when making this film that was unexpected?
I think one of the things I found that really has become an important mission for us, is the idea of how large the gap is between military and civilian population. We in society little understand all the things that these women and men do, essentially on our behalf. They are not doing it on a daily basis, but even if you are lucky enough to be deployed on a large base, and are not seeing battle, you still are away for a year. Your three-year old is now four and you only saw her in pictures, or maybe Skype, if you were lucky enough.
One story we tell is of a women returning from a deployment in Iraq who was standing in formation when she saw this beautiful girl. “God, she is adorable!” she thought. She didn’t even recognize her own daughter. One of the most poignant moments women talk about is waiting to see if your own child recognizes you. I think it is universal, but woman talk about it more readily. That is what we are attempting to do. Tell these stories. We’ll see what impact it has, when we are done.
The project is larger than the film, but the film is where we all kick off.
How has this film changed as you progressed?
I don’t believe there are coincidences anymore; if I told you the number of things that have aligned [recently]. It is way beyond any of us. West Pennsylvania has a really high veterans population. I was thinking I’d [make this film for the] local PBS, but then I kept meeting people – people in Los Angeles who have Oscars under their belt in Los Angeles who offered to help. We are really hopeful that [this film] will have long term impact.
What do you hope this movie will accomplish?
A lot of healing goes on with something as simple as sharing a story. It allows women to face and process their own experience, as well.
Do you have any advice for veterans or soldiers who think they have a story to tell?
Document it in some form, whether it is a personal journal, through photographs, or through video you took yourself. Set up a video for your own family. If you want to leave a legacy, document it. People are making history and this is part of our shared history. Capturing these stories is a part of what this country is about. The Library of Congress has a great oral history archive. People might decide they want to document it for their own family, but look at World War II. The only way we know [some of these stories] is when they died. [Letters, photographs and documents] showed up with a flag. There is no Hollywood story as compelling and interesting as the actually truth of someone’s life.
Photo credit: Maj Erick Saks, USAF