War journalists share stories at Carnegie Library forum in Oakland

| Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Journalists and filmmakers who have covered conflicts around the globe shared their motivations for the work they do and the difficulties encountered on the front lines during a panel discussion on Thursday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

The program was sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of Women in Film and Media and moderated by documentary filmmaker Kalpana Biswas.

JulieHera DeStefano, a documentary filmmaker who spent 3 12 months embedded with the United States military in Afghanistan to chronicle the challenges female soldiers face as they prepare to return home, said she saw the project as “an opportunity to understand and convey stories on a deeper level, which is an opportunity we are not always afforded.”

DeStefano said she conceived the project after seeing a female veteran who appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2009 to discuss the difficulty of performing even simple tasks such as preparing a meal for her child after losing an arm in Iraq.

“The woman said her life had changed forever,” DeStefano said. “And my life changed in that moment. It dawned on me that we must have thousands of women serving and how many incredible stories are there among them.”

Carmen Gentile, a writer and photographer who was injured in 2010 when a rocket-propelled grenade struck him in the face in Afghanistan, said the experience of nearly losing his eye was dispelled by the many combat veterans he has met who have suffered severe physical trauma.

“I'm able to look back on that and see the lighter side of it,” he said following a presentation of video footage of the attack in which he is heard calling out to a U.S. soldier to “grab my (camera) gear, man.”“Call it luck, call it blessed, but I'm very fortunate,” he said. “I've met a lot of soldiers since then who were not so fortunate and lost one, two, three limbs in combat.”

Tribune-Review photographer Justin Merriman, who has been covering military conflicts since the start of the “War on Terror” following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said he has often asked himself the question: “What makes people like us go into these places?”

“For me, going into these combat zones is about humanity,” said Merriman, whose photos chronicle the challenges faced by ordinary people living in combat zones.

“We all hope that our pictures, our stories, our videos make a difference. I don't know if they do, but we can at least acknowledge these people who would otherwise be forgotten,” he said.

Lynda Schuster, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who covered conflicts in Latin America, the Middle East and South Africa, said the numerous incidents in which her safety was at risk were tempered by “the desire, and even the need, to bear witness and give voice to the voiceless.”

Among the most challenging assignments Schuster faced as a reporter came during the fall of the oppressive South African apartheid government, which was followed by the monumental election in 1994 of President Nelson Mandela.

“Sometimes we are privy to moments of utter grace,” she said. “I cannot think of any other job that allows me the privilege of witnessing history up close and then getting to write the first draft.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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