The "Girls next door"
April 11, 2011
Filmmaker JulieHera DeStefano came to Afghanistan to chronicle the lives of women combat. What she hadn't counted on was discovering her own personal journey in the process.
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Thinking of all the places she thought' she'd be while growing up, the last place filmmaker JulieHera DeStefano said she would have imagined finding herself was in a combat zone in Afghanistan.
Here is dust and debris, severe weather, unforgiving terrain, and constant traveling to remote areas in Regional Command East. Here is also missing the creature comforts of walking barefoot to the bathroom in her home, as opposed to putting on shoes and walking out of her B-Hut across the sharp aggregate in the dead of night just to get to the female latrines.
But here DeStefano is, a civilian among Soldiers and other servicemembers, living as they live, and roughing it out in the harsh, nearly primitive environment that is Afghanistan. There's a story here she wants to tell: a story about our female veterans. She seeks to follow their experiences in a combat environment, and the adjustments they make to life back home after their re-deployment.
The project is titled, "Female Veterans on the Long Journey Home: A Documentary." DeStefano, a Pittsburg, Pa., native who lives in New York City and was there during 9/11, said the experience has opened her eyes to what military culture is all about.
"I've started to understand the type of family bonds that develop here. I think it's profound on how strong and close and wonderful they are," she said. "Just like your family back home, there are days you fight and don't like each other. It's never perfect, but it's kind of wonderful in its imperfections."
This is DeStefano's first foray into documentary filmmaking. A Carnegie-Mellon University graduate, she moved to New York City 16 years ago, where she worked on off-Broadway as an actor, theater manager, and producer. She's also managed a film and photography studio.
She arrived in Afghanistan in December 2010, and has spent most of the winter here among the troops. DeStefano traveled primarily through RC-East, and has interviewed a variety of servicemembers, including female pilots, medics, and the sole female member of an all-male Personal Security Detachment convoy team.
The journey itself started for her nearly two years ago, when she and her partners Karen Gravelle and John McDermott were looking for projects to undertake.
An episode on the 'Oprah Winfrey' show - featuring women who had served in combat in Iraq, telling their stories about what it was like to serve overseas and what it was like to come home- set the events in motion.
"There was one young woman who told a story that struck me. Her young daughter asked her to make her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She went into the kitchen to make her the sandwich, but realized she couldn't make it the same way she had before because she had lost an arm," DeStefano said.
Life had changed for that woman in that instant, she said. "I got to thinking about how we talk very little about anyone's experience in a combat zone is, especially women, and even less about when we come home," DeStefano said.
DeStefano said she, Gravelle and McDermott spent a year gathering data and researching the topic of their documentary. They decided the premise of their film would focus on women as emotional leaders in a family, and how or if a combat deployment affects that role.
"We wanted to know how did that dynamic changed if you've witnessed some of the things people are oftentimes witnessing over here, even if it's a totally positive experience of being part of something large and powerful like the military," she said.
"Doing things that are very fulfilling to people ... how do you go back to being a mom, a wife, a sister, or a daughter with the assumption that deployment is a life changing experience. Good or bad, it's different, and how do you integrate this experience into the person you were once before'"
Sgt. Velma Robinson, a supply noncommissioned officer with the 277th Support Maintenance Company, 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, was interviewed as part of the film project. She has deployed three times and said the transition back home has been different each time.
"It can change a person for the good or the bad," she said. "It's a lot for people back home to deal with. You have to take it as a day-by-day thing."
Another interviewee, Spc. Dierdre' Taylor-Scales, an automated logistics specialist at Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 17th CSSB, said she felt she was a different person when she went home on Rest and Relaxation leave.
"Everything is different when you come home. My own husband had a different view of me," she said. "We've had the experience of living in a different environment and having to carry a weapon all the time. We are different after that experience and people will look at you differently."
DeStefano said she has talked to a variety of female servicemembers about their experience of being deployed. Some have multiple deployments under their belts, others are first-timers.
"One particular company commander I interviewed sort of embodied that image of patriotism that I wish a lot of us had in our everyday lives," she said. "She's the soldier who 'bleeds green, but happens to be a woman and doesn't have to change who she is to be a strong leader' type."
"I've also talked to a lot of women who are struggling with an internal conflict that I think most of us don't acknowledge. They love what they and believe in the causes that bring them here, but there's this guilt they're putting themselves through. It's a really powerful thing to see and a real struggle for them to say, 'I want to follow my career, but I'm concerned about the impact it will have on my children.' "
DeStefano described an interview she conducted with one such servicemember who experienced that exact conflict.
"I had one woman I talked to ... strong, powerful... and I asked her what would she most like her son to know about her time deployed, and she put her head in her hands and burst into tears. And she said, 'I want him to know how much I want to be home with him. I want him to forgive me for not being there,'" she said.
"We're quick to forget that. Even if your deployment is beautifully uneventful, and hope that it is, you're still away from home. You're away for a year, and it's a sense of being in this Groundhog Day for a year, and everything is still moving forward," DeStefano said. "You've missed that progression at home because you chose to this very noble thing with your life."
Staff Sgt. Shalanda Banks, a Human Resources noncommissioned officer for the 109th Quartermaster Company, 17th CSSB, also took part in the project. She said she believes many people also tend to forget that Soldiers are also part of the general community.
"We want to be able to take off the uniform, sit back and not worry about having to put it back on and going across the world," she said. "We want the same pleasures in life like everyone else."
DeStefano said she has come to understand how complex the conflict in Afghanistan is, particularly for women. She said she want to position the film as a "call to action" in the community in creating positive solutions for these transitioning troops.
"We want to open a dialogue with the community about the sacrifices you make for us," she said. "We're allowed to benefit everyday back home from what you do here whatever your job is. So we have an obligation to step up the plate and supporting you in your return."
DeStefano said she is in talks with the Pittsburgh Public Broadcasting Station about airing the film. She also said she's received an offer from the Army Office of Chief of Public Affairs to look into the possibility of airing the documentary on HBO.
One of the promises she's made to the servicemembers is that they are allowed to preview the finished product before it is aired and distributed.
"This is their story, and we don't politics or anything else to get in the way of this being a vehicle for their voice," she said. "We have to make sure those promises are kept going forward with any producing partner."
"It's a very rare glimpse into this world. Not many people are given that opportunity and it's something that I will not take lightly."