When director and producer Lysa Heslov heard about the 55,000 homeless women veterans currently in the United States, she knew she found the inspiration behind her next film.
“When I always thought of homeless veterans, mistakenly, I had always thought that it was a man pushing a shopping cart,” Heslov tells PEOPLE.
For two years, she entrenched herself in the company of many of these veterans and created the documentary, Served Like A Girl, which focuses on five women who are competing for the crown of Ms. Veteran America, and the struggles they have faced since returning home from war.
“To be able to tell their stories and hopefully have some impact with these women — it became a mission for me,” she says about the film that debuted at South by Southwest on Monday. “We became a family.”
The more Heslov got to know the women in the film — Jaspen Boothe, Nichole Alred, Hope Garcia, Rachel Engler, Andrea Waterbury, Marissa Strock and Denyse Gordon — who she describes as “warriors who have overcome adversity,” the more she “fell in love with them and the “easier it became to tell their story,” she says.
Heslov exposes the reality that female veterans face at home and during the competition, including PTSD, divorce, serious illness and military sexual abuse. Ms. Veteran America is more than a competition. It’s main mission is to raise money and awareness to support and advocate for homeless women veterans.
Continue onto PEOPLE to read more about Lysa’s journey in making this documentary.