Gibsonia native’s documentary opens dialogue on returning servicewomen |

Gibsonia native’s documentary opens dialogue on returning servicewomen

Major Jill Finken (Iowa National Guard JAG Corps) and her son at her welcome home ceremony, in a scene from 'Journey to Normal)
The 'Journey to Normal' crew films Lt. Col. Christine Mau and her family outside of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho
Joshua Yospyn
JulieHera DeStefano and the women of the Journey to Normal Project (from left): Major Jessica Astorga (retired), Lt. Col. Christine Mau, Major Jill Finken, Specialist Abby Rae Allen, Col. Rebecca Tomsyck, Chaplain Martha Kester (captain), Lt. Col. Ivonne Daly, Staff Sergeant Judi Reeves, Cap. Devon Reyes (retired).

Even before its release, a film exploring the issues servicewomen face upon returning from deployment is changing the American dialogue about veterans.

“Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home,” has taken its creator, Gibsonia native JulieHera DeStefano , all over the country to discuss how society can best serve those who have served.

“It’s left us with this drive to fundamentally change the conversation we have nationally,” says DeStefano, whose film uses the stories of women to explain what it means to serve, deploy, return and face society’s assumptions about those experiences. “We’re surprised every day at how big it’s become.”

The film is the focus of an event Nov. 20 at the Library Place at Pittsburgh Mills, Frazer, when Lt. Col. Thomas Stokes, an Army reservist and licensed clinical social worker who’s partnered with DeStefano, will discuss the movie and the experiences of women combat heroes.

The women featured in the film are among the more than 28,000 who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. DeStefano set out to tell their stories in late 2010 when she spent 3½ months touring Afghanistan, interviewing 100 servicewomen about their thoughts and fears as they prepared for the end of their deployments. She followed up with several upon their return home.

The film is now in post-production with an anticipated release date of 2015. The editing process involved turning 200 hours of interviews into a 90-minute film. To avoid wasting any material, DeStefano and her team have created several outlets ideal for sharing these firsthand accounts. Plans are under way for an eight-part miniseries. “Journey to Normal” also includes an interview archive, which will be available to the public in 2015.

The film also is gaining attention at a national level. DeStefano worked with Disabled American Veterans to coordinate a panel discussion featuring women of the film. The organization then issued a special report using the film as source material to address issues facing female veterans.

“It keeps getting bigger at every turn, and we’ve had just amazing people get on board and support it and help push it forward,” DeStefano says. “That’s the real testament to the women and the military experience. It’s not because it’s us moving it forward. It’s because of them. They’re inspiring this kind of action and support.”

To encapsulate the meaning of her film, DeStefano uses a Chinese proverb: “He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.” While women are the storytellers of “Journey to Normal,” many of the topics they address are applicable to all veterans and include everything from adjusting back into family life to losing a sense of purpose. Even interacting with civilians can cause stress many people might not understand.

“That’s really the main focus of our mission — bridging that military-civilian cultural gap,” DeStefano says. “The more we can connect on that personal level and understand them as human beings, (we can) take that and use it as the common entry point to understand our differences.”

One way the “Journey to Normal” team hopes to accomplish that is through an initiative launching in early 2015, which involves training specific groups, including school counselors, veterans-services administrators, clergy and human-officers, on how to best support veterans and their families.

“It’s a way of being culturally sensitive to military personnel,” says Stokes, who served as officer in charge at a combat-stress clinic in Afghanistan. The initiative is based on successful techniques he used to help servicemen and -women in combat.

Stokes refers to such efforts as “mobilizing the community,” which he says means taking the care to the veterans, rather than waiting for them to seek out services.

“We’re taught to be strong and resilient, and that’s the very thing that can work against us. We suck it up,” he says. “Once we trust you, we trust absolutely. It’s in the nature of our military service.”

Details: or find “Journey to Normal” on Facebook and Twitter

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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