From Cheerleader to Wounded Vet: Oscar Nominee Sara Nesson Tells One Soldier's Epic Journey

Sara Nesson's Oscar-nominated filmis a breathtaking look at a hidden war, one that leaves far more soldiers dead on the home front, by suicide, than on the battlefield.
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Sara Nesson jokes that she set out to make a movie about paper. The director ended up with an intimate, heartbreaking film about Sergeant Robynn Murray, a cheerleader and National Merit Scholar who graduated high school, then joined the Army. Murray was featured on the cover of the Army's official magazine, transformed into a poster girl for the ideal female soldier. After a tour manning a machine gun and examining dead civilians, Murray returned home a physical and emotional wreck.

The sergeant sought healing on Martha's Vineyard at the Combat Paper Project, where wounded soldiers cut up their uniforms and slice their ribbons and process them into paper, which they use to make art. Nesson was there making a documentary about the project. When she met Murray, she shifted gears and began telling the sergeant's story.

For two years Nesson watched as Murray battled the Veterans' Administration for a doctor's appointment, fought off a collection agency, and screamed and cried and punched walls in PTSD-fueled frustration. Her film, Poster Girl, has now been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). It is a breathtaking look at a hidden war, one that leaves far more soldiers dead on the home front, by suicide, than on the battlefield.

Nesson spoke with me about Sgt. Murray, PTSD and the winding maze wounded soldiers must navigate to prove to the military that their wounds came from war.

Kors: Tell me about meeting Robynn.

Nesson: Well, I was there at the art studio, filming the soldiers cutting up their uniforms. As they cut, they were sharing stories, reliving everything. When I met Robynn, I don't know—maybe it was because she'd seen me working with the other vets—but there was this instant trust between us. This was July 2008. She was about to go through the whole VA process. So I asked her, "Can I go to Buffalo with you and film you in your home?"

Kors: She said yes.

Nesson: She said yes. I filmed her filling out everything, including the claims for sexual harassment. There was a cadet back in basic training who harassed her to the point of threatening her life. She was sobbing as she filled out the papers. But for the claims, you have to lay out everything.

Kors: You were also there for another really difficult moment: when Robynn was in her bedroom, frustrated with her life, furious with her PTSD, and she starts punching a wall until it breaks.

Nesson: Oh, that was a hard scene to film. I wanted to stop her or just give her a hug. But I told myself, this is the face of PTSD. And if I stopped the camera from seeing that, it would have defeated the whole purpose of making this film. Thankfully, when she began to cry, her mom came to the attic and gave her a hug. So I was lucky.

Kors: I've been covering veterans' issues for four years now, and in all that time, I've only written about PTSD once. The reason I've sidestepped the issue is because it's so easy for the Army to brush it aside. They can say, "Hey, you think she's crazy because of the war. We think she was crazy before the war. I guess we both have our own opinions."

Nesson: Oh yeah. I've heard that too. It's a ridiculous argument because every recruit is evaluated before they're accepted into the Army. If the soldiers really had something wrong, they should have caught it before their service.

Kors: Also, I'm so frustrated that war injuries get divided into these two categories: physical injuries, like Traumatic Brain Injury, and psychological injuries, like PTSD. People don't understand: PTSD is a physical injury. It's when the neurons have been stressed to the breaking point and begin firing erratically, thus producing erratic behavior.

Nesson: Right. Robynn always described her PTSD in physical terms. She said it felt like she'd just run a marathon. After Iraq, she started having a lot of panic attacks.

Kors: Some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie are watching her go through the proof system, where wounded soldiers have to prove their wounds came from war before they can get disability and medical benefits. For the longest time, soldiers with PTSD had to gather witnesses, collect "buddy statements" detailing the events that traumatized them. I'm wondering, did you know that President Obama relaxed those regulations?

Nesson: No, I didn't.

Kors: Yeah, in July, Obama made it easier to collect PTSD benefits. No more witnesses, no more buddy statements. Sort of a new "tie goes to the runner"-type situation. At least, that's what the White House said. I've never spoken to a soldier who told me collecting benefits was now easier.

Nesson: Wow. When I was filming Robynn, she had to get witnesses. She's a writer, so she documented everything. But it was a painful process. The memories came flooding back to her, and she had to relive everything. Plus, to connect a trauma with an event, some things are almost impossible to prove.

Kors: No doubt.

Nesson: One soldier I read about, he lost a limb and was struggling to prove to the VA that his wounds were caused by the war.

Kors: Do you think the current benefits system can work, or is it fundamentally flawed and should be scrapped?

Nesson: I think it really depends on your representation. You can't navigate the system on your own. That much is clear. They make it so frustrating, so unnavigable, that you want to kill yourself. Everyone should have someone to represent them. As you see in the film, Robynn was lucky to have Bill Perry from Vietnam Veterans of America, who assisted her along the way. What's scary is that the military doesn't want that. You remember what happened at Fort Drum. They had a system there for military personnel to help injured soldiers fill out the forms, and the military put a stop to that because with employee filled-out forms, a lot more soldiers were collecting benefits. Then, after Eli Wright, one of the active duty soldiers at Fort Drum, brought the story to the media, they reversed course and reinstated the program.

Kors: Another big problem is the Pentagon's language: PTSD. Comedian George Carlin had a great routine about how, over the generations, it was changed from shell shock to operational exhaustion to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Each change was intended to make the condition less bloody, less human. With shell shock, people understood the injury. Now, with just the acronym, people say, "PTSD ... what is that again?"

Nesson: (Nesson laughs.) I hadn't heard that routine. ... But you know, even when it was "shell shock," the condition wasn't widely known. And most soldiers were not seeking help. That's another part of the problem: the stigma of saying you have PTSD.

Kors: They could fix that simply by renaming it "PTSI": Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When you're injured, you go to the doctor.

Nesson: Yeah, that is good. When it's a "disorder," it's harder, more emotionally complicated to seek help.

Kors: I think the military is also trying to sell this idea that soldiers aren't seeking help for their PTSD because they're too macho. My experience, talking with injured soldiers, is that most don't seek help because they're afraid of being accused of being a criminal: the crime of malingering, faking their illness. They see a buddy go in for care, get accused of faking it and face the consequences, like a loss of benefits or, if they're still in the Army, a dishonorable discharge. So they say to themselves, "I may be severely wounded, but forget it—I'll deal with this myself."

Nesson: Yes. And you can see how this plays out in the movie, when Robynn does go to the doctor. He has hundreds of people coming in saying they have PTSD, and he's there essentially to prove them wrong. Compassion is not in his vocabulary. Bill was preparing her for that appointment, instructing her to show all the signs of PTSD, prepping her to handle being treated like a liar.

Kors: That is one scene that's missing from the movie. There's no footage of the actual doctor's appointment. I'm assuming the VA wouldn't allow you to film it.

Nesson: That's right. They wouldn't let us in the doctor's office. You see that shot in the VA waiting room, when Bill's talking about how the Army took this wonderful cheerleader and chewed her up and spit her out. Then they told me to put the camera down.

Kors: Did you know that the VA's manual for its doctors specifically instructs them not to trust soldiers when they come in and report their injuries, especially invisible wounds like PTSD, because as the manual says, PTSD is relatively easy to fake.

Nesson: Wow. No, I hadn't heard that.

Kors: That information was leaked in a lawsuit I covered in 2008.

Nesson: It makes sense. In one scene in the film, the night before her evaluation, I asked Robynn, "What are you most afraid of?" And she said, "That they're not going to believe me, that they'll just give me drugs and send me home." That's another thing: the VA treats them like drug addicts. They get them hooked on pain medications and mood stabilizers, then act like they're addicts when they come back for more. I know at one point Robynn was ashamed to ask for a refill.

Kors: Isn't there a bizarre irony here? In the film, you see the mountain of pill bottles Robynn has gotten from military doctors. They give away pills so easily, presumably for her injuries. And yet she has to fight them tooth and nail to get them to label her injured and, thus, deserving of disability benefits.

Nesson: Exactly. It can take six months to get an appointment. And when they get one, they give them pills. The VA is not doing enough to counsel them. They don't have time to talk with soldiers about their real problems. Eventually the soldiers think, "If you can't help me, just give me some drugs." But I'm sure all the soldiers would gladly trade the drugs for some support, some counseling instead.

Kors: What's your current relationship with Robynn?

Nesson: Oh, it's really good. We're a team. (Nesson laughs.) We're like sisters. We've been taking the film and showing it all around the country, at schools, at conferences.

Kors: What was Robynn's reaction when she saw the film for the first time?

Nesson: (Nesson sighs.) I remember that. She came up to Vermont, with everyone from the Combat Paper Project. I showed a rough cut to everybody. I was so anxious that she wouldn't want me to release the film. So ... I watched her during the screening. She cried through all of it. It was really hard for her. She needed 24 hours to take it all in. Then she came to me and said she had some old snapshots of herself, if I wanted to use them for the final film. That was her sign that she approved. ... Later, when she saw the final cut, she said, "This is a work of art. You're an artist." That meant so much to me.

Kors: What would you say today to a 19-year-old woman who wants to go into the Army?

Nesson: Well ... I'd want her to watch the movie. I'd say, "If you're dead set on joining, if there's nothing I can do to change your mind, then at least you should understand how the experience is going to change you, so you'll be better able to cope down the road." It's a tough question. A lot of young men and women are so idealistic. They think, with the Army you'll get money for school, help getting a job. They don't realize that serving in war might leave them with a mind that will struggle to hold down a job.

Kors: People think they come back the same, maybe even stronger. "Army strong."

Nesson: Right. And the truth is they don't. Eighteen vets are committing suicide every day. Most people don't know that. There's such a disconnect between vets and the broader society, which is one big reason most people don't know how to talk to them.

Kors: I read an interview where you said the film had a "higher goal." What was that goal?

Nesson: To bridge that disconnect, to give the soldiers a voice. I think the only way people are going to understand what soldiers are going through is to hear them, to see their struggles.

Kors: The movie doesn't take a political stand, left or right. Still, some people are going to wonder: are you a journalist or an advocate?

Nesson: That's a tough question... I started filming because that's what I do. I'm a filmmaker. But my intentions were advocacy, advocacy on behalf of the soldiers.

Kors: Well, I think a lot of soldiers, especially those who have hacked through the VA maze to get their benefits, they will see this movie and say, "This is my story."

Nesson: Wow. That ... that would mean that my film had done its job.

Kors: You reveal at the end of the movie that the VA has now declared Robynn 80 percent disabled, opening the door to medical and disability benefits. Where does she go from here?

Nesson: Robynn wants to be like Bill, helping other wounded soldiers make it successfully through the system.

Kors: And you: what's next for you?

Nesson: Well, first the film airs on HBO in the fall, around Veterans Day. And we're doing special screenings around the country. We are also in development with producers in Hollywood to turn Poster Girl into a feature film.

Kors: You're also completing your movie about the Combat Paper Project, Iraq Paper Scissors. I understand you're seeking donations to finish the film.

Nesson: We are.

Kors: Why should people donate to your project?

Nesson: Well, it's a companion piece to Poster Girl. And I do hope, by shining a light on what they're doing with the Combat Paper Project, that it will bring them more attention, more funding and more soldiers who could heal from the project. You see in Poster Girl just how transformative it's been for Robynn. It's been so successful that some high-ranking officials have talked about the VA embracing the project. But the idea keeps getting struck down because of the controversial nature of cutting up uniforms. But that is what the project's about: cutting up the old, the painful, recycling and renewing and beginning to heal.

Kors: Will Robynn be going to the Oscars with you?

Nesson: Oh, absolutely. She's so excited. (Nesson laughs.) She's not my date for the red carpet though. I owe that to my mom. She's been there for me from day one. I told her I was going to make film about soldiers who make paper out of their uniforms. And she said, "Okay. Sounds good." Now she and my stepdad feel like I was a good investment.

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