WIF Member Spotlight: Veterans Day

Women In Film thanks our members who have served in the nation's military. On Veterans Day, we're proud to highlight three such women:

Onitra Johnson

Onitra Johnson is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she earned Honors in Film Studies, was awarded the Olin Fellowship, and was a Posse Foundation scholar. She is pursuing a career as a television writer, and before attending Wesleyan she served in the U.S. Air Force for over six years.

WIF: What kind of work did you do while enlisted?
OJ: I worked as a Personnel Specialist, which is the Air Force equivalent of a Human Resources Manager, giving Airmen counsel and resources to support their career goals.

What inspired you to enlist?
I come from a military family, but I was inspired by the very real need for a secure paycheck, health benefits, and a way to take care of my mother and sister.

What motivated you to pursue a career in entertainment?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and after doing a lot of soul-searching, I decided that TV writing would be the best way for me to pursue my love of storytelling. I also wanted to be able to show my daughter that you can pursue your dreams at any stage of your life, and with a lot of hard work and persistence, you can make them a reality.

"I want to encourage other single mothers to pursue a career in entertainment."

How did you get involved with Women In Film?
I heard about WIF during college, and I joined after I moved to L.A. in July.

How has your background as a veteran affected your experiences in the entertainment industry?
Well, I just graduated from Wesleyan in May, and started work as a Writers’ Production Assistant in September, so I’m still building my experience in the entertainment industry. But, I always try to embody the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all I do. It might sound a bit cheesy, but still—I wrap those values around my work ethic, and so far it’s been working for me.

Is there anything you wish people knew about you or understood better?
I’m a single mother pursuing a career as a TV writer, and I want to encourage other single mothers and other women veterans who want to follow their dreams of working in the entertainment industry. It’s challenging, but it’s not impossible.

Lynelle White

Television writer Lynelle White, a recipient of a Women In Film scholarship and member of our INSIGHT program, is a veteran of the United States Air Force. An alumna of the UCLA MFA program in Screenwriting, she is currently a staff writer on the CW’s “Black Lightning.” White served nine years on active duty after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

WIF: What kind of work did you do as an airman?
LW: I was a pilot and flew the KC-135 Statotanker to conduct air-refueling missions worldwide, but more specifically in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. After about four years of flying the KC-135, I transitioned to flying the C-21 Learjet, which is used for VIP transport. Basically, I flew generals and other high-ranking government officials around the country.

What inspired you to join the Air Force?
When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with STAR WARS and “Star Trek.” I wanted to be some combination of Han Solo mixed with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, so I tried to find a career that dealt with space, technology, and things that fly—which led me to the Air Force. I was originally just planning to be an Air Force engineer, but while I was at the Academy, the Air Force experienced a shortage of pilots, and I was steered in that direction. My life has been a series of “happy accidents.”

"Theres a lack of awareness about women in the military because our stories are hardly ever represented."

What motivated you to pursue a career as a TV writer?
Well, this was yet another “happy accident.” I left active duty to pursue a different, more creative career. Initially, I thought I would be a director—I still try to direct when I can—but quickly realized that I needed to get a better handle on storytelling and screenwriting, so I started taking classes and writing short screenplays. As I was learning and developing my screenwriting craft, I met a TV writer who mentored me and helped me land my first job on staff.

How did you get involved with Women In Film?
While I was at UCLA pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting, WIF granted me a scholarship, and then I was invited into the INSIGHT program.

How has your background as a veteran affected your experiences in writers rooms?
The first TV show I ever wrote for was “Army Wives,” and one of the reasons the showrunner hired me was my military background. Having a good script helps to get you hired on staff, but it’s even more important to have specific knowledge or experience that the showrunner finds useful to the writers room.

What are you working on now?
I’m currently a staff writer on the CW’s “Black Lightning.” Season three is currently airing on Monday nights. I have also developed two original pilots specifically about female veterans. One is called “Battle Buddies,” about two female Army soldiers injured in the war who return home and must rebuild their lives. The other is “Fly Girls,” about the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII.

Is there anything you wish people knew about women in the military?
I think there’s a lack of awareness about women in the military because our stories are hardly ever represented in film and television. That’s something I’m working to change. We have the largest number of female veterans returning from war in the history of our country right now, but services like the VA are still playing catch-up in order to properly support female vets.

Yazmin Ortiz

Yazmin Ortiz is a director, writer, and producer who served eight years in the U.S. Army. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she studied filmmaking at UCLA, and is in production on her feature LOOKING FOR GEORGE.

WIF: What kind of work did you do while enlisted?
YO: When I was an enlisted soldier I was in the health sector. When I became an officer, I was in the Signal Corps.

What inspired you to join the Army?
Adventure! When I was a teenager, I saw an ad showing women climbing and rappelling down walls, and I was in awe. I was, and am, also very patriotic.

What motivated you to pursue a career in entertainment?
I had been a dancer since I was five years old, and as I was growing up I studied musical theater, Spanish classical theater, and Shakespeare. It was just too much fun!!! My mother was also a big influence on me. She loved movies and would bring me to the local arthouse movie theater every Sunday afternoon, religiously. I fell in love with movies.

How did you get involved with Women In Film?
I received a Lucy Award Scholarship from Women In Film when I was in film school. After that, WIF became my adoptive “madrina” (godmother), and sort of a mentor in the industry, even honoring me with a spotlight at the Crystal + Lucy Awards—which was one of the most wonderful moments in my career. The ladies (and some gentlemen) of Women In Film have believed in me and stayed with me through good and bad. I will always be grateful for the support of this organization.

How has your background as a veteran affected your experiences in the entertainment industry?
It’s been very helpful to have been in the military. It teaches you the discipline and strength that you will need as a filmmaker, and provides camaraderie. You must be able to deal with lots of personalities and be a team player when working on a film. It’s a collaborative piece of art, so you develop friendships and important relationships just like in the military. Filmmaking is a machine, with different leaders and department heads all working to bring their talents in service of one goal, following a chain of command. Though the film industry is very rewarding, each discipline is very tough, and the military teaches you to have a thick skin. And leadership: your platoon depends on you like your crew depends on you if you are a director or producer. My officer training school was instrumental in teaching me those skills.

What are you working on now?
We’re still working on my film LOOKING FOR GEORGE—it happens over a long period of time, so it couldn’t be rushed, but it’s coming. I’m also finishing a short, and am in the development and pre-production of the features I won the European Spanish Media prizes for: REDEMPTION and THE KIDNAPPER, a drama and a comedy, respectively. We are still seeking funding for them, but they are both prepped. I’m also working on two documentaries: one about child abuse, and one on justice.

Most importantly, there is a project I am working on that is unrelated to film, but very close to my heart. There are 60,000 homeless persons, including many women and children, living in Los Angeles. So, I’m collecting resources and information for them. If you know of any community resources or in-kind donations that could be available to them, please reach out to me through social media to include them in the listings. No resource is too small; it could be legal, food banks, medical, housing, your church, or nonprofit. Lastly, if you have a warm coat that you no longer use, I will also be doing my annual Winter Coats for the Homeless Collection, and can pick up from your home.

Is there anything you wish people knew about you, women in the military, or women in entertainment?
As for me, I love my work, and I won’t rush my art. Never underestimate the strength of the women in the military, those ladies can kick ass. And never underestimate female directors. How could society possibly think that a person who could deliver a baby, work, clean, cook, love, be a psychologist, be a friend, be a mediator, be an artist, etc…. not be on par with her male counterparts? It truly is inconceivable that a woman could not be considered for a directing job just because of her gender. Come on, people!