Filmmaker and Veteran Collaborate on Documentary About Female Post-Military Experience

After battling gender stereotypes and enemy forces, Sergeant Robynn Murray, a machine gunner in Iraq, was featured in director Sara Nesson’s “Poster Girl,” a short documentary about women in the military. Murray and Nesson came to campus on Friday for a screening of the film and a question and answer session. Once a National Merit Scholar and a cheerleader, Murray enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2003 after graduating from her local high school. She was deployed to Iraq in 2004 to join the civil affairs unit. In order to prove her own strength as a woman, an underrepresented demographic in the military, Murray assumed the role of a machine gunner in her company in Baghdad. “Even in training, there was this attitude where they wanted to keep women away from crew-served weapons. I wasn’t allowed to drive a tank. In an environment where you have to survive by using the weapons around you, the idea that women weren’t offered the same training on the heavy arms was incredibly insulting, and I felt unsafe,” said Murray in the Q&A session after the screening. Murray’s company was in charge of building clinics and assessing damage. Murray said that despite the initial intent, the unit did more harm than good. “Along the way I had terrified hundreds of people. I was pointing my machine gun at civilians and families. I questioned my own morals in how I started to treat people. There was so much fear and anger,” said Murray in the Q&A. “I came to realize that the type of soldier that I was was a bully and an occupier, and that was the exact thing that I joined the army to prevent. It was upsetting and it was a harsh realization to come to after being willing to give up my young life to something I thought was so noble,” she continued. “Poster Girl” detailed Murray’s story after her return home from the war. It focused on Murray’s recovery after returning home from Iraq. Nesson shadowed Murray’s daily life for two years, collecting footage of her struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. The film also documented Murray’s difficulty filing claims through the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs for her PTSD, back and hip disabilities and military sexual trauma (MST). After months of confusion and waiting, Murray only received compensation for her physical disabilities and PTSD. The name of the film was inspired by Murray and two other women in combat who were featured on the cover of the August 2005 edition of “Army Magazine”. Throughout the film, Murray found comfort in confronting her difficult past through creative outlets. With the help of poetry and art made from “combat paper,” paper made from shredded old military uniforms, Murray began to leave her war-torn past behind. The film ended with a scene depicting an art exhibition where Murray displayed her war-inspired art and spoke about her ordeal. Nesson and Murray said that the intention of the documentary was to raise awareness for the struggles endured by veterans, particularly PTSD. “When I came home in 2005, absolutely not a soul was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It took until 2007 for me to be officially diagnosed. I had a horrible time getting doctors to listen to me,” said Murray. Murray told the audience that a third of troops who previously served in combat zones have PTSD. She also said that 22 veterans commit suicide a day in the United States. Nesson met Murray on a veteran’s retreat in Martha’s Vineyard when Nesson was working on a film called “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Murray’s story and her willingness to be open about her past inspired Nesson to create a documentary centered solely on Murray. “It was impossible for me to not put my camera on her. She is incredibly compelling and allowed me to tell the story that I wanted to tell,” said Nesson. “Poster Girl,” an HBO short documentary film, was nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar in 2011. It received the Best Documentary Short from the International Documentary Association the same year. Murray said that her life has improved greatly since the beginning of her post-war struggles. She is expecting her first child in September and will earn her political science degree in a year and a half. Andover’s Women’s Forum (WoFo) hosted the event with a grant from the Abbot Academy Association. “I was so touched by her strength, her stories, even her way of speaking, and I could tell the room was as well. Sara [Nesson] did an excellent job of complementing Robynn [Murray]’s forcefulness with a logical, outer-perspective of an issue that she, herself, was courageous in pursuing and documenting,” said Madeleine Lippey ’14, Co-Head of WoFo.