March 17, 2017 03:20 PM

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.

Movie poster for Served Like A Girl
Steve Craine

“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.

Master Sergeant Denyse Gordon, Sergeant First Class Joanne Makay, Master At Arms First Class Hope Garcia, Lieutenant Commander Rachel Engler, Major Jas Boothe, Sergeant Nichole Alred and Sergeant Andrea Waterbury
Sunshine Sachs

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.

At first she thought the film would only appeal to veterans, people currently in the military and women, but she has been blown away by how people “across the board” reacted to the documentary.

“Directing this was terrifying and exciting and became so much more than I ever thought it could be,” she says.

She was relieved to know that the women featured in the film — with whom she lived with at times during her journey — were pleased with finished product.

“I’m so happy,” she says. “My goal was to try and tell the story almost as a narrative and make it interesting and accessible to everyone.”

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