AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- "I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home."
As the song fades, along with an image of a uniformed woman hugging her young son, JulieHera DeStefano watched as an audience of Airmen silently wiped away tears and took a collective deep breath in.
Aviano Airmen were given the opportunity to view parts of a film, entitled "Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home," that highlights eight women's deployments to Afghanistan and the joys and difficulties of returning home. "Journey to Normal" focuses on the different experiences of each woman as well as the commonalities between each of their stories, and hopes to make those stories relatable on a "mother, sister, daughter, wife" level, said DeStefano, the film's director and producer. The image at the end of the film's trailer is a familiar one, one of a servicemember returning from deployment. That's where the story ends for most of the American public - this is the modern day "happily ever after" homecoming. "Reunions aren't always like what they see in the movies," said Capt. Sarah Byron Smith, one of the audience members, after the viewing. "We have to get to know our friends, our family, our spouses and our children all over again and that takes time."
Her journey toward understanding this reintegration process began in 2009 while she was watching an episode of Oprah featuring servicemembers returning from Iraq. One woman's story truly affected her in a way that, according to DeStefano "truly altered the course of my personal and professional life." The woman went into the kitchen to make her daughter a sandwich and realized that she could no longer perform the task the same way because she had lost her arm while deployed.
"It was in that moment, in the middle of this basic motherly task that she's trying to perform that she had to acknowledge that her commitment to serve had altered everything that would come after," DeStefano said. "It made me realize that we talk very little about what your experiences are in a combat zone and we talk even less about what happens when you come home." The filmmaker has spent the last four years passionately researching, filming and interviewing the eight women featured in the film and dozens more to gain perspective.
"There are very few instances where people go directly to veterans and say 'Tell me you story, help me understand and tell me what's going to be helpful and supportive to you when you're returning home,'" DeStefano said. "We tend to want to tell you what's going to work rather than asking what your thoughts and opinions are. I saw a unique opportunity to change that." While the documentary is not yet complete, DeStefano gave the audience a rough sketch of what the final product will look like, showing the film's trailer, a compilation of interviews and the story of Lt. Col. Christine Mau, a fighter pilot stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. "The feature-length documentary takes eight of the stories that began overseas and follows these women more in depth as they transition home to family and community," said DeStefano. "We are following each woman over time, so we are able to see what it's like when you arrive home from deployment and then we see where you are three months, six months and a year from then." After viewing the film, women with deployment experience gathered in working groups to discuss how the documentary resonated with them and their personal experiences. A common theme discussed in the groups was the difficulty of leaving family, particularly spouses and children, behind during a deployment, something that is covered extensively in the film.
"That bond between a mother and her children is inexplicable," said Byron Smith. "I would have to say the most significant challenge for me on my most recent deployment was being heart-sick for my son. And [when I got back], I essentially had to get to know my son again. He had changed so much in the 9 months I was gone." DeStefano said that many of the women she interviewed faced this challenge, citing one particular interview with a female Air Force member that she found truly memorable. "I asked her, 'What do you most want your son to take away from your service?'" Destefano recalled. "She put her hands to her eyes and burst into tears and she said 'I just want my son to know how sorry I am that I'm not there.'
"So many of the women who have families back home felt this sense of real guilt over doing this thing that they love that takes them away and the guilt of not being home for every moment," she continued. Although the stories of female servicemembers around the world have taught Julie the meaning of sacrifice in the military, DeStefano hopes that her work will teach women to appreciate their own sacrifices outside of the military. "What [children] have learned from seeing [their] mother make that commitment - that is what has impacted [their] lives," DeStefano said. "It's not about how tough it was when mom was gone or how tough it was when mom came back. It's important to be part of something that's larger than yourself, it's important to have strong ideals and ethics and values and live up to them. That's what the military does and teaches you. And they see mom living that on a daily basis. That's profound and that's an important thing to remember. You are giving your children a gift of watching you walk the walk and talk the talk." The full documentary is expected to be released in August of this year. In addition to the film, DeStefano is also archiving every interview she conducted overseas. The interviews will be accessible online to historians, healthcare providers, academicians and anyone who wants to understand more about military service and sacrifice. She hopes it will help bridge the military-civilian cultural gap and connect families with the service of a loved one.
"We want to find out what your journey really entails," DeStefano said. "The reality is that we still have women who have been home for several years and they are still in the transitioning process.
"War changes you. It's important that we understand that those changes are not only positive and they're not only negative. The reality of life is that they're both."