In Poster Girl, Robynn speaks bitterly of her experiences of being an idealistic 19-year-old thrust into the role of machine gunner. She describes feeling numb to it all at the time – being strong for herself and her unit, never showing weakness. Robynn calls herself the ideal female soldier – tough as nails, and seemingly immune to the sexual harassment levied against her. In fact, an image of her alongside 2 of her fellow female soldiers was used on the cover of Army Magazine, making her a literal poster girl for women in combat. It was only after she had been back in the United States that the dam burst and she began to feel the impact of her time spent at war.
The film is short – clocking in at 38 minutes. It follows part of Robynn’s journey after her return. She talks frankly, in fierce staccato bursts, of her struggles with PTSD, with chronic pain and crippling guilt. Self-medicating with alcohol and fighting to receive fair compensation for her disability, she appears full of rage and deeply sad. She speaks of her suicide attempts and constant depression. In one heartbreaking moment, she breaks down, is cradled by her mother and begs her to explain: “What did I do so wrong that this keeps happening to me?”
Poster Girl was nominated for an Academy Award for best short documentary, but lost to Stranger No More. Sara and Robynn toured with the movie across the United States, encountering an outpouring of support from veterans and their families. Predictably, Robynn has been the target of gendered attacks on her appearance and body, often followed by seemingly unrelated declarations of her being “unpatriotic.” She has received hate mail and unfortunately been the subject of a few appalling forum threads. However, she only remembers hearing one negative reaction expressed in person.
“A man asked me, while I was onstage, ‘don’t you think that this is why women shouldn’t be allowed in combat?’” She assumes he found it an appropriate thing to ask her because the competence of women in the military is commonly discussed in the media with little regard for how insulting it is for female veterans who have already served and are serving in war-zones.
“I looked at him and I was just so mad. I’m also a little more diplomatic than I would have been a few years ago, when I would have been like…” She laughs and waves her middle finger in the air.
“I said, ‘sir, if you were paying attention, I had no problems being a soldier. It was what came afterwards. Studies show that women have been in combat are far more effective at managing stress and coping with PTSD than male veterans and we’re far less likely to commit suicide. And the guy shut up and left.’”
Robynn found solace in activism and artistic ventures like the Combat Paper Project. This initiative aims to support veterans in their healing through paper making workshops. The paper itself is made of their uniforms, cut up and beaten, laid flat and painted over to create poignant representations of their experiences with war and re-adjusting to civilian life. As a female veteran, she was in the minority during these workshops, which frustrated her. She felt she was often overlooked and assumed to have played a less active role than her male peers.
“I remember thinking about it that you always kind of want to blend into a male-dominated world, and I so I put combat paper on a mold of my female body. I can’t really stay in that field of androgyny anymore. You can’t separate your experience as a service member from being a woman because there is always someone there to remind you. A lot of the pieces by female veterans focus on war alone, but then you’ll see pieces that deal with inequality and sexual trauma, which unfortunately is prevalent. The quality of the art is fantastic all across the board. It’s just the subjects that are different.”
Read the full article in the Winter Issue here.