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North Hills Monthly

Journey to Normal to Focus on the Lives of Female Soldiers

Oct 30, 2015 03:07PM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine
By Kathleen Ganster

JulieHera DeStefano didn’t grow up in a military family nor did she really know much about the service. Now, the Richland woman is fully immersed in military life, its lingo and its veterans.

It all started in 2009 when DeStefano, then living in New York City, watched the Oprah show, where female veterans were discussing their wartime experiences. “One of the women was talking about making a peanut butter sandwich for her daughter and how she realized even simple things were so much different because she had lost her arm in war,” DeStefano said.

War, DeStefano realized, was different for women than for men. An actress and filmmaker, she decided to film female veterans from the western Pennsylvania region, which was the start of Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home. What started as a small, regional film has since turned into a full-length production focusing on eight female veterans, their journeys to war and the return home.

For four months, DeStefano filmed hundreds of women who shared their experiences. “We chose to follow eight women through the transition home and enlisted the help of four additional women who act as military ‘experts,’ speaking to the universal experience,” she said.

DeStefano and the crew continued filming when the women returned to their homes. That formed an important focus of the project. “You see the world differently after a combat deployment, and that cuts both ways—that perspective shift is influenced by both the positive experiences of service and the brutality of war,” she said.

Since starting the film, DeStefano has traveled to Afghanistan and extensively throughout the U.S. In early 2010, she decided to participate in the PA Hero Walk, a 342-mile walk from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that raises awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project. “It really opened my eyes to what veterans had gone through. We had plenty of time to talk, and I learned so much,” she said.

When a local paper featured a story about her walk, another door opened. Lt. Colonel Thomas Stokes of Shaler was home from Afghanistan on leave and reached out to her. “He said to me, ‘If you want to tell the story of transition, you must come and understand what people are coming home from,’” she said. A few months later, DeStefano found herself in Afghanistan.

As the film expanded, so did the project. DeStefano formed a nonprofit and is working with Stokes, a behavioral health specialist, to create tools for those who work with veterans that includes a seven-week training program and curriculum.

DeStefano partnered with Andrew Swensen of McCandless who serves as the producer of the film. “We are in the final stages of post-production in some of the most time-consuming aspects, but the core of the film is built,” he said. Swensen said they are preparing for a national launch, although the exact nature of the launch remains to be finalized.

“This project is about knowing something that we don’t know enough about,” he added. “It isn’t just about soldiers; it is about what the women have gone through, how they have changed because of war.” 

For more information about Journey to Normal, visit or follow them on Facebook.