Montana State University

Film puts war and aftermath in focus for MSU's Diane Steffan

October 31, 2011 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Diane Steffan, an accountant at Montana State University, on a beach in Vietnam in the film "From the Mekong to Montana: As Told By Diane Steffan," which airs on MontanaPBS beginning Nov. 5. Steffan journeyed to Vietnam to confront events that impacted her life in a film made by MSU professor Theo Lipfert. Photo courtesy of Theo Lipfert.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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For many people, travel is the culmination of dreams. Diane Steffan traveled to see the source of her nightmares.

Steffan, whose life was changed by post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by her late husband, Randy, is the subject of a 26-minute documentary, "From the Mekong to Montana: As Told by Diane Steffan." It will air at 5 p.m. Nov. 5 on Montana PBS stations. Made by Montana State University film professor Theo Lipfert, it is the story of a woman who travels across the world to confront the demons she believes ruined her life.

That Steffan's story of acceptance and redemption has been made into a film is still a little overwhelming to Steffan, an accountant for the MSU School of Film and Photography, who said that she doesn't like to talk about herself.

"There's only so much that you can say without sounding like you are whining," Steffan said. In fact, many of her co-workers had no idea about her life and torment until a few years ago, when she and Lipfert were part of a random conversation among colleagues about places they would like to travel.

"Diane just blurted out 'I want to see Vietnam because it is the country that ruined my life,'" Lipfert recalled. "I don't think I had ever heard a place described like that before."

Lipfert learned that Steffan, a small and friendly woman who works in the front office of the Visual Communications Building, had lived through a Montana love story gone horribly wrong. While a student at MSU, Steffan, originally from Great Falls, met fellow student Randy Steffan, a native of Phillipsburg who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. They married in 1970 and Steffan recalls that they had a happy life, full of friends and socializing and dreams of children and a full and happy future.

Steffan can pinpoint the day when their life turned. It was a Saturday night in November, 1980. They had returned from going to a Bobcat football game on the road at Eastern Washington. When they returned, Randy was plagued by a violent nightmare rooted in his service in Vietnam.

"He screamed 'Don't let those (Vietnamese) get me,'" Steffan said. It was the first time he'd had such dreams in the more than 15 years since his discharge, she said.

"After that, there was never a day that he was sober." She said Randy was in and out of rehabilitation, "but without also treating his PTSD, it was pointless."

He had become increasingly violent, and in 1986 Steffan said he physically assaulted her and threatened her life.

"I knew then that it was time for me to leave before there were two dead people," she said.

The two divorced, but Steffan says that she "loves (Randy) to this day more than anyone who ever lived." In fact, she was with him and his family the day he died 19 years ago of cirrhosis of the liver.

When Lipfert first heard her story, he asked Steffan if she would tell it to his students in his documentary filmmaking class.

"After that day, there were lines out the door of students who wanted to tell me about someone they knew and loved with PTSD," Steffan recalled. "Some were the students themselves, or their fathers or friends."

Steffan's story was so resonant to Lipfert that he applied for and received a MSU Scholarship and Creativity Grant so he and Steffan could travel to Vietnam two years ago. There he filmed her reaction to the country she believed had ruined her life, which became the film "From the Mekong to Montana." Steffan said even years of living through the aftermath of Vietnam didn't prepare her for what she saw there and what is illustrated in the film.

"The trip showed me that many people suffered from that war," she said. "People (in Vietnam) lost everything. And if they could forgive and survive after what they went through, I could let go." She said she hopes the film and her story help others whose loved ones suffer from PTSD.

Lipfert, who is on a Fulbright Fellowship in the Republic of Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa, said via email that he hopes to make the film available to veterans groups and military families. He believes Steffan's story might be a helpful way to get a conversation about PTSD started.

"The story is so personal -- one woman telling of her experience -- but at the same time, there are so many families who have (or will) experience the consequences of PTSD." Lipfert said. "It seemed like Diane's story from the Vietnam era would, unfortunately, be lived over and over again by families of veterans from the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts."

To learn more about when "From the Mekong to Montana" will air on MontanaPBS, see http://montanapbs.org/FromTheMekongtoMontana/.

-cs-

Diane Steffan (406) 994-3902, dsteffan@montana.edu