Usually it’s customers who tip their servers, but when the waitress at the Wood St. McCormick & Schmick’s overheard JulieHera DeStefano talking to her bankers about needing to raise money for a project that will document the homecomings of female soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the server slipped her a $5 bill. A few weeks ago, when DeStefano shared a version of the same story at Chatham University’s Women Business Leaders Breakfast Series , the full house of mostly women gave her a standing ovation.

That’s how compelling DeStefano’s Journey to Normal project is.

And, how much it’s needed.  

Despite extensive coverage of the wars, and more recently, the difficulties many veterans have transitioning to civilian life, virtually no attention is paid to female enlistees, “the emotional leaders of our families and communities,” says DeStefano.
Moreover, the evidence is that female vets, who comprise 15 percent of the active-duty population, have a more difficult time after coming home. Female veterans ages 18-34 were three times more likely to commit suicide than female non-vets, according to a Psychiatric Services study cited in a story in the May 2012 issue of Women’s Health magazine.  By comparison, male veterans are twice as likely as male non-vets to kill themselves.

In addition, women in the military develop post-traumatic stress disorder twice as frequently as their male counterparts. And the marriages of enlisted women are three times more likely to end in divorce than enlisted men’s.

“In the Army, we like to say that you’re not a man or a woman, you’re a soldier,” says Sergeant Tobey White, an Army public affairs specialist who recently returned home to Columbus, Ohio, after a four-year enlistment, including a year-long deployment in Salerno, Afghanistan.  “Women are out there on the front lines getting things done, just like the men. They’re not just sitting behind a desk. So the work that Julie’s doing to tell their stories is extremely important.”

White says she never experienced discrimination as a woman in the Army, but in the course of covering stories involving male and female soldiers for military publications and introducing many female veterans to DeStefano, she knows that many women do. Having to prove yourself adds stress to what is already a stressful environment, she says. Single moms who’ve had to entrust their children to aging parents or siblings seem to have the hardest time during deployment. Yet homecoming isn’t the relief you expect it to be, at least not a first. White, who’s living with her parents while she looks for a civilian job in journalism or public relations, says she’s still not used to the freedom, to being able to pick up the phone, for example, to call her friends and family whenever she wants to.

Anything but normal

Ironically, DeStefano, a filmmaker and actress who was in search of her next project, was about as far away as one can mentally get from Iraq or Afghanistan when the inspiration struck for what has become her Journey to Normal organization: she was watching Oprah. That afternoon, Oprah had featured a female veteran who had lost an arm in the war. It was the moment in the veteran’s life when her daughter asked for a peanut butter sandwich that she realized she’d never be able to make a peanut butter sandwich the same way she’d made it before her deployment. Normal just wouldn’t be normal anymore.

What DeStefano realized in that television moment is that there were thousands of women with similar stories that deserved to be heard.  So, DeStefano’s journey began.  And even though this Gibsonia native who has a master’s degree in fine arts from CMU had been living in New York, all roads led DeStefano back to Pittsburgh. A 2010 article about DeStefano’s budding project in her hometown newspaper, the Pine Creek Journal, caught the attention of Lieutenant Colonel Tom Stokes when he was home on leave for his oldest daughter’s wedding.  Stokes convinced DeStefano that in order to effectively tell the story of returning veterans, she had to see firsthand what they were coming home from.

But obtaining clearance to embed with troops in a war zone doesn’t come easily, quickly or cheaply. After securing the appropriate International Security Assistance Force approvals and vaccinations, DeStefano had to purchase her own gear, everything from a bulletproof vest and combat boots to a sleeping bag (most from Markel Supply, a family-owned company in the North Hills). She also had to acquire the 100-pounds of cameras and related equipment she hauled throughout her three-and-a-half month embedment, during which she endured dozens of missions and helicopter flights in order to meet with more than 100 military women.

DeStefano says that encamping with the very people who are charged with making the world safe inspired her to be brave. Still, there were scary times, beginning with her first moments in Kabul. “The driver who was supposed to pick me up was late, my phone wasn’t working, and there were a line of drivers for hire outside of the airport just daring you to make a mistake,” she recalls.

Many of the women’s stories DeStefano captured during her embedment will become part of a feature-length documentary, hopefully to be released in 2013. The timing is partly, of course, a question of money. To bring the film and the related projects that are happening as a result of the film to fruition – including an oral history archive and a Web network where female vets can connect virtually – DeStefano still needs to raise about $300,000. Many Pittsburghers are coming together to help. Pittsburgh Filmmakers served as a financial conduit for DeStefano before her application for official nonprofit status for Journey to Normal, Inc. was approved by the IRS. The Heinz Endowments has provided a grant through its small arts initiative. And an emerging partnership with UPMC through a Department of Defense grant will likely provide awareness and some additional funds for the project while positively contributing to the wellbeing of the women and men who valiantly serve our country yet face an increased risk of suicide.

Their “spectacular display of patriotism” in the war overseas is what motivates DeStefano the filmmaker to tell their stories now. Currently she’s capturing on film “the journal to normal” of about eight of the women she met in Afghanistan – including a Pittsburgher.

“The footage overseas was to set up the coming home,” DeStefano says. “Now we have to learn what the stateside return is like. We can’t put off filming until all of the money’s raised because the stories are happening now.”

And the scope of the work continues evolving. “The project keeps wanting to grow,” she says.
While you can view a trailer of the film today at, two Pittsburgh communications firms, Human-Habits (a veteran-owned company) and Landesberg Design, are building out the Web site to allow others to show their support for the project. Soon you’ll be able to post comments and upload a photo of yourself or the veterans you’re grateful for on the site. And of course, just like the McCormick & Schmick’s waitress, you can also slip a $5 to DeStefano. “Five dollars is just as important as more than $5,” she says. “Come, and build the community with us.”

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