POSTED: Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 1:00pm
UPDATED: Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 1:04pm
CNN — When a car slammed into their motorcycle, June and Ted DiStefano knew the horrific accident would change their lives forever. They didn't realize it would give them the power to help others.
Both were severely injured in the hit-and-run accident. June was kept in an induced coma for a month as doctors tried to save her left leg. In the end, they had to amputate it. Ted also lost his left leg.
Today, 15 years later, the DiStefanos are actors in a hostile environment training course, using their physical injury to help create a shocking, realistic simulation of a war zone for troops.
"We call it hyper-realistic," said Kit Lavell, a Vietnam veteran who runs Strategic Operations, or STOPS, in San Diego -- a movie set turned training ground for thousands of U.S. servicemen and women.
Professional make-up artists create the appearance of horrific injuries on the actors, who are all part of a simulated combat situation. Those participating -- which include military recruits and journalists -- are taught to perform lifesaving maneuvers on the amputees.
It's training we do as CNN employees to prepare for work in potentially hostile environments. I recently went through this training and what startled me was seeing people who had actually lost an arm or a leg or, in some cases, lost two limbs reliving that experience.
And that's the whole point, according to Lavell.
"The individuals who are going through the training here are not expecting to see an amputee," he explained. "And so the shock effect of seeing that happen is priceless."
A war veteran who completed the training before being deployed told June DiStefano that it "takes away that initial, first shock."
"Those are the best, when they come back and say you made a difference," she said.
Another actor in the hostile training course, Heather Morales, was just eight years old when she told doctors they could amputate her right leg after complications from cancer.
"I wanted to just take it off," said Morales, who is now 28. "I told my mom that it was a 'sick leg.'"
Morales calls her injury "a gift."
"Everyone else there out there in the world that thinks that this is something to be ashamed of, don't," she said. "If there's something wrong with you, don't fix it. Embrace it."
Roughly two million people in the United States are amputees. Losing a limb is not only a traumatic experience, it also often takes many employment options off the table. But Heather, Ted and June are doing a job simply no one else can do and providing an invaluable service to men and women on the battlefield.
Morales said she has always been interested in acting. As a child, she would act out movie scenes in her backyard: "I would perform for all the birds on the telephone wire."
She worked for a while in Hollywood, but put her acting career on hold when she moved to San Diego, where her husband was stationed -- until she arrived at Strategic Operations.
Neither June nor Ted DiStefano -- who served in the Navy for 21 years -- had any acting experience before working with the training course.
June says she relies on her personal experiences when getting into the role.
"It's just compassion from the heart and relaying what happened to me and Ted during the accident ... and pulling that into the character," she said.
The training can seem so realistic at times it can make the trainees and the actors cry.
"You can see it in their eyes, that it's really affecting them," said June, who fondly recalls when Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, came to watch their training.
The day we visited the operations center, a group of Navy Corpsmen was undergoing the training.
"This is really top-of-the-line training," said squad leader Adam Sanchez. "They (the amputees) play a very important role here ... the realism -- you can't fake that."
Most importantly, working on amputee actors takes away the shock that they may face in a real war zone.
"It actually is more realistic and it gives them a first-hand knowledge of what do to in case of casualty," said U.S. Navy Senior Chief Clarence Conner.
Morales says her husband's military service inspires her work: "My goal is to make it so that someone comes home at night to their family. That's my ultimate goal."
She realized her job was special when a three-star general approached her one day and expressed his appreciation.
"He came up to me and said 'thank you,'" she said. All she could say was, "Me?"
"When you go home at night, and lay your head on the pillow and know that you have the ability to change someone's life," June DiStefano said, "it's priceless."