Robynn Murray is an Iraq war veteran struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At age 19, shortly after 9/11, Robin decided to enlist in the Army, and recalls the recruiter telling her she would be assigned to the Civil Affairs division – “good guys” who provided humanitarian assistance and helped rebuild infrastructure. At the time, Robynn said, “I’m sold. I want to go and help people.”

Within a few days of arriving in Iraq, however, she was assigned to be the machine gunner for a 20-vehicle convoy, which sometimes meant being ordered to point her rifle at civilians. Today, at an anti-war conference, she holds up a copy of Army magazine, with a photo of herself and two other female soldiers on the cover. “This is what they made me,” she says. Robynn became a “poster woman” for females in combat, insisting that this was a role she never wanted.

Having grown up in a military family, Robynn knew from a young age she wanted to join the military. At her mother’s home in Buffalo, NY, she shows pictures of herself from high school, where she was a member of ROTC, a National Merit Scholar and a cheerleader. A photo of a smiling Robynn on prom night is a stark contrast to the Robynn of today, who has tattoos of rifles on her chest and the letters “V-E-T” on her knuckles. Of the rifle tattoos, she says they represent her disillusionment with the Army, and her “wish to never have my hands on any trigger or gun that would claim a life of another human being.”

Part of Robynn’s job in Iraq was to assess damage on civilian property. She emotionally describes going into a home where the walls and floors were covered in blood and brains; she could tell the victims had been shot in their sleep. But she says none of it fazed her at the time: “I just walked in, like one of the guys. Don't show weakness, you’re female. Be callous. Make jokes.”

When Robynn returned home, she knew there was something wrong, but says she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She had trouble sleeping, so she would drink all day and take sleeping pills at night. And she started having panic attacks. She shows the bottles of the many medications she has been prescribed: stomach pills, antibiotics, birth control, antidepressants, pain killers, and anti-anxiety meds. She says she’s ditched all of them except for the pain and anti-anxiety pills.

When she was in Iraq, Robynn says she was too young to realize the impact she had on the Iraqi people; pointing guns at innocent civilians and raiding their homes seemed OK. However, “When I stopped to think about it,” she says, “I really started to feel like crap.” Speaking out at events and sharing her story has helped her deal with her pain. At a demonstration at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Robynn tells the crowd, “There's nothing more that I would like to do, than tell those families that I pointed my machine gun and rifle and pistol at, that I'm sorry.”

After the Veteran’s Administration office in Buffalo lost her paperwork, Robynn moved to Rochester to be re-evaluated for PTSD by the regional VA office. Helping her through the process is Bill Perry, a Vietnam vet whose goal is to get her the treatment and compensation to which she is entitled. Perry says the military “took an American apple-pie cheerleader and pretty much crushed her, and made it very difficult for her to function in society.”

Robynn’s PTSD has led to violent and emotional outbursts. We see her punch a hole in the wall of her room and kick a dent in her car out of frustration. Robynn says her mom once found her in hysterics in a parking lot. The sight of uniforms and the sound of firecrackers still scare her. She says, “I lost a part of my humanity … and I'm just starting to get it back.” To help cope, Robynn joined the Combat Paper Project, a group of veterans who make art from their uniforms. She creates papier-mâché sculptures of her own torso to reflect the deconstruction of the macho image she had of herself. At a gallery show to display the Project’s artwork, Robynn tells the audience, “I never thought that I could take some of the experiences that I had being in Iraq and doing the job that I did and turn them into something positive.”

In a postscript, we learn that three years after completing her military service, Robynn was evaluated as 80% disabled, which enabled her to receive her first monthly check of $1,228 – and to move on with her life.

ABOUT THE FILMMAKER: Director/producer Sara Nesson has spent the last three and a half years working on films Poster Girl and Iraq Paper Scissors, both of which follow Iraq War Veterans throughout several years as they cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nesson is the founder of Portrayal Films, Inc., and is currently in development of her first narrative feature based on Poster Girl.

In addition to its Academy Award® nomination, Poster Girl won the Audience Award at the Documenta Madrid Film Festival, and was an official selection at HotDocs 2011, the Telluride Film Festival, and the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

CREDITS: Directed and Filmed by Sara Nesson; Produced by Mitchell Block and Sara Nesson; Edited by Geof Bartz, A.C.E.; Original Score Miriam Cutler. For HBO: Supervising Producer: Sara Bernstein; Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins.

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