There were a lot of places JulieHera DeStefano could have spent last Christmas – with her friends and boyfriend in New York City where she now lives, with her family back in the Pittsburgh area or anywhere else but a combat zone in Afghanistan.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Richland native and 1990 graduate was doing research and beginning to film “Female Veterans on the Long Journey Home: A Documentary.”
DeStefano’s own journey started in New York City, came through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and ended at several military bases in Afghanistan.
DeStefano moved to New York City after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1995. She worked as an actress and had small roles in movies including "First Wives Club" and "The Preacher's Wife." She also managed a film and photography studio where she gained experience on the other side of the camera.
Along the way, DeStefano became good friends with her neighbor, writer Karen Gravelle. The two discussed working on a project together, but hadn’t found “the right one.”
Then DeStefano saw an episode of "Oprah" that inspired her with the story of a female war veteran.
“She said that when she went to make her 4-year-old a peanut-butter sandwich, she realized she could never make a sandwich like she did before she went to war, because she had lost her arm in combat,” said DeStefano. “That moved me so much, and I wanted to do something out of that story.”
DeStefano talked with Gravelle. As they kicked around ideas, making a film about female war veterans seemed to fit the bill.
“Karen had worked at the Walter Reed Hospital during the Vietnam era and has an [master of social work degree] and Ph.D., so she knew some about war experiences,” said DeStefano.
After making this decision, DeStefano received an early-Sunday-morning telephone call from her father, Ralph DeStefano, who suggested she take part in a two-week, 342-mile Pennsylvania Hero walk from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, an event for Wounded Warriors.
“I made a joke and said something like, ‘Only if my mommy goes,’ and she did!” said DeStefano. Her mother, Jocqueline, helped drive the support vehicle and walked parts of the trip with her daughter.
Shortly thereafter, a local officer stationed in Afghanistan read about DeStefano’s walk and hopes to create a film while he was home in the Richland area for his daughter’s wedding. He located DeStefano, and she drove from her home in New York to meet with him.
“He told me if I was going to do an accurate film about these women that I needed to know where they were serving,” she said.
Lt. Col. Tom Stokes, a behavioral health specialist, helped put the wheels in motion to clear the way for DeStefano’s visit. After months of special clearances, purchasing military-approved clothing, gear and photography equipment, DeStefano ended up in Afghanistan two days before Christmas.
For the next three-and-a half months, she took 22 flights across the country to various U.S. bases and interviewed nearly 100 female military personnel.
“I was hoping that I would be able to interview five or six, and I was overwhelmed by the response,” she said.
DeStefano realizes her research trip caused worry for her parents, who now live in West Deer Township, and her boyfriend in New York. But she is quick to say her family went through what military families go through all of the time.
“And I went there by choice, I was only there for three-and-a-half months,” she said.
Since her return to the U.S., DeStefano travels back and forth from New York City to her parents' home while she works on the business end of the film, including raising money for the production. She is also making plans to visit other bases, this time stateside.
“We plan to follow five to eight soldiers for about a year after their return home to see what their lives are like,” she said.
DeStefano hopes the film will be released in 2012, but also knows that will require a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
“Sometimes it seems overwhelming, but it is beautifully overwhelmed,” she said.
“We want to tell their stories. We want to serve them the way they have served us, the way they have served our country.”