A newsmaker you should know: Her film follows female vets from Afghanistan to the U.S.
April 25, 2013 9:15 AM
By Kathleen Ganster
"It all started when I was watching the Oprah show," JulieHera DeStefano said of a project that led her to spend four months in Afghanistan, film a full-length documentary and eventually start a nonprofit organization.
Ms. DeStefano, who grew up in Richland, was watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2009 when a female veteran on the program talked about her return home.
The veteran told of how she started to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her daughter -- something she had done hundreds of times before she went to war -- and realized how difficult it would be now that she had lost her arm while in the service, Ms. DeStefano recalled.
"It was really at that point that she had to acknowledge how much her life had changed because of the war," she said.
The show sparked Ms. DeStefano's interest in female veterans and their journeys to war and home -- and the idea for her documentary was born.
She is nearly finished filming "Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home," which follows eight women as they serve in the U.S. military and then return to "normal" -- their lives back in the United States.
"We talk so little about our returning veterans, especially our female veterans," Ms. DeStefano said. "I thought it would be interesting to see how different war is for women."
She discussed the project with her parents, Ralph and Jocqueline DeStefano, and her father told her about the PA Hero Walk, a 342-mile journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to raise money and awareness for Wounded Warriors.
Ms. DeStefano decided to take part in the walk in the summer of 2010, and her mother rode along to carry snacks, sunscreen and lip balm for her daughter.
"Sometimes she would join us and walk a mile or two," Ms. DeStefano said of her mother.
Taking part in PA Hero Walk allowed Ms. DeStefano to get to know the veterans, ask them questions and listen to their stories as they walked across the state together.
When Lt. Col. Thomas Stokes, also from Richland, learned of Ms. DeStefano's project, he called her.
"It was very fortuitous because he was only home from Afghanistan for a two-week leave for his daughter's wedding" when he learned of her efforts, Ms. DeStefano said. "He told me, 'If you want to tell the story of transition, you must come and understand what people are coming home from.' "
With Col. Stoke's help, Ms. DeStefano traveled to Afghanistan, where she stayed from December 2010 to April 2011, filming interviews of more than 100 female soldiers.
"I wasn't really afraid before I left, but I realized if I thought about it, I couldn't eat," she said.
During that time, she spent Christmas away from her family and boyfriend, but, she said, she kept thinking about the women who would be in Afghanistan for much longer.
"I was only going to be there for a few months. These men and women are there for sometimes years and more than one tour," Ms. DeStefano said.
She also had what she called "undying" support from those who are close to her.
"My mother said, 'What right do I have to tell my daughter not to go, not to tell other daughters' stories?' " she said.
Ms. DeStefano has filmed the lives of eight of the female veterans she met while in Afghanistan.
"I've traveled all over, met families, attended a wedding, children have been born -- these women have become my friends," she said.
When Ms. DeStefano's mother died early this year, one of the women drove several hours to attend the funeral.
"This has been a unique blessing for me to be a part of their lives and to be a vehicle for their voice," she said.
Ms. DeStefano also has spent time on the other side of the camera. She has had roles in a few movies, including "The Preacher's Wife" and "The First Wives Club." She also has been the business manager of a film and photography studio in New York and served as the managing director and producer of an off-Broadway theater company.
Ms. DeStefano in now in the final phases of filming, which she plans to finish by mid-May. The editing has started, and she hopes the film will be ready to submit to film festivals early in 2014.
Her involvement with veterans isn't going to stop with the film, however. A year ago, Journey to Normal became a nonprofit organization operated by Ms. DeStefano and others.
In addition to the documentary, the organization will have an online video archive and conduct outreach activities.
"We want to continue other projects to keep the voices of our female veterans in front of the public," she said.