MIDDLEBURY — Sara Nesson was a student at the University of Vermont during the late 1990s when she developed an interest in the stories of Iraq War veterans living in Burlington.
That experience led her to Robynn Murray, a teenager from upstate New York who joined the U.S. Army in 2003 as an enthusiastic recruit and returned from a tour in Iraq at age 20 fighting a personal war against the ravages of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Nesson spent two years chronicling Murray’s emotional and physical struggles following her return, struggles that include depression, nightmares, guilt associated with PTSD, battles with the Veterans Affairs (VA) for benefits, and attempts to navigate a civilian world that hardly recognizes her. Nesson turned Murray’s story into a 2011 Oscar-nominated short-subject documentary titled “Poster Girl,” which will be aired on HBO on Nov. 9.
“Poster Girl” will get a special premier on Friday, Oct. 14, at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
The event is being sponsored by the Gailer School, a grade 7-12 independent school in Middlebury that is partnering with the Vermont Veterans’ Place — a nonprofit, temporary housing organization in Northfield — to bring young people and veterans together to help create community bonds between students and veterans in transition.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the Gailer School. Nesson explained that she and Gailer School Director Lonny Edwards are friends.
“I hope this is a successful event for the school and the community,” Nesson said during a telephone conversation last week.
“I support the use of this film as a way to fund-raise for the school.”
Nesson said Murray’s story has proved to be a powerful vehicle for understanding PTSD and allowing viewers to relate to the many struggles of service men and women returning from war zones.
“It started as a video collaboration,” Nesson said of “Poster Girl,” but it ended up becoming far more. HBO took note of it and infused some much-needed resources into its production. The company lobbied for its Oscar nomination.
“I knew Robynn’s story was pretty profound,” said Nesson, who is currently working to turn “Poster Girl’ into an independent full-length motion picture.
“My goal for making this film was to break through the cultural disconnect between veterans and civilians,” says Nesson. “I wanted to bridge that gap by showing the struggle and healing journey of one person.”
After battling addiction and other personal demons, Murray is doing much better, living with her boyfriend and two dogs on a farm in upstate New York, according to Nesson. Murray is volunteering at a wellness center and is doing a lot of writing, she added.
Murray and Nesson will be at the Oct. 14 screening at the THT and will answer questions about the film, which will be shown at 7 p.m. Admission is $20, with a discount of $10 for students and veterans.
The film will play an important role in broadening Gailer students’ experiences with the Vermont Veterans’ Place, Edwards said. Students are scheduled to visit with the veterans in Northfield on Friday, Oct. 7. Those veterans, in turn, are set to visit the Gailer School on Oct. 14 and view the film.
“The film is about an important issue: The challenge veterans face when they return from combat to a society that doesn't understand what they went through and how to deal with people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by their experiences; experiences that they endured at the behest of that society,” Edwards said. “I personally took the film as a challenge. It would be easy to watch this film and understand that these people are suffering, that it is a terrible situation, and yet still not know what to do about it. Among the core values that Gailer espouses, community service ranks pretty high.”
Each of the Gailer School students must perform 30 hours of community service in the autumn of each school year.
Edwards hopes the Oct. 14 event spurs more contact and understanding between veterans groups and the community at large.
“What I’d really like to see happen from this is something that spreads to other schools, perhaps even all over the country,” he said.
“It should be about healing and bringing people together. It should be about reaching out to people who need a friendly word and a place to go where they can feel needed and respected.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]