For Army Reserve Capt. Rebecca Murga, telling the story of women in combat ranks in significance just below the privilege of actually donning a military uniform.
Murga, a filmmaker, photographer and writer, is working on her latest short film, "American Girl," which follows a young woman's experience in becoming a soldier who eventually serves in Afghanistan.
She's one of 10 applicants participating in the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women this year, giving her the experience and skills to make the short film, which she hopes to turn into a full-length feature in 2016. She is the first service member to participate in the yearlong course, started by the American Film Institute in 1974.
Her film's basic subject matter is timely, as opportunities for women in the military are changing at an increasingly swift pace.
For example, for the first time this year, women began training at the Army's notoriously tough Ranger School, another step in the opening of ground combat occupations to female soldiers. The Marine Corps in 2014 opened up 11 military occupational specialties to female Marines.
"These women are not just soldiers, they're mothers, they're sisters and through storytelling and filmmaking, you can make that connection, and you can empathize in what some of these soldiers do," Murga said in an interview with Military Times. "To me, that is something that has gotten lost over the years."
Murga's story also explores what it means to be an immigrant serving in the U.S. military — the 12-year-old Guatemalan girl in the film must first reach the U.S. before she can begin to dream about serving.
"When I deployed, I met soldiers from all over the world, from Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines, and was surprised to learn how many members serving in the military were fighting for a country that wasn't theirs," Murga said.
Since 2001, more than 92,000 foreign-born service members have become citizens while serving in uniform. Even as the debate on immigration continues, the Army — through the Defense Department's Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, known as MAVNI, program — has signed up over 80 immigrants since March and plans to double its recruits to 3,000 by the end of fiscal 2016.
"I wanted to look at and tell that story of folks like my dad, who's Guatemalan, and folks who come to this country and want to do nothing but serve it," she said, adding that the central character in her film will have a personal journey, but also shed light on these cultural and political transitions.
Murga, assigned to the Army Reserve's California-based 201st Press Camp Headquarters, wants to correlate the film to her own experiences, not only as woman, but also as a person behind the lens in a combat zone.
In 2007, Murga deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom; she also deployed to Kuwait and traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar in 2010 covering military units as a writer and photographer.
Deploying again in 2011 — her "favorite deployment," she said — Murga covered Special Forces units and culture support teams, the first all-female units assigned to special operations forces who worked with Afghan women.
During her last trip to Afghanistan, she met friend and fellow soldier Paula Broadwell.
"Captain Murga is a mentee and I follow her career closely as a friend and mentor," Broadwell said in an email to Military Times. "I've tried to raise her profile as a rising star in the public affairs world and film industry because I think we need to illustrate success stories like hers, learn from her insightful films, and empower women to achieve their goals."
Broadwell also said the popularity of such works as Gayle Lemmon's "Ashley's War: The Untold Story Of A Team Of Women Soldiers On The Special Ops Battlefield" illustrates how "society wants to hear more from women in war."
Lemmon's book explores how women have already served in combat zones alongside elite special operations units prior to some services opening more roles to women in combat.
"At a time when the military is reviewing women's integration into [combat], I think these firsthand stories help educate the public about women's bravery, physical abilities and willpower," Broadwell said.
During her "favorite deployment," Murga covered Special Forces units and culture support teams, the first all-female units assigned to special operations forces who worked with Afghan women.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Murga
"Some of the female veterans I've met over the years ... worked in logistics, on cultural support teams, as commanders," Murga wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2012. "But no matter what the job, or where the deployment, I would hear the same words from every woman I spoke to: It's lonely. Scary. Intimidating. Exhilarating. Satisfying. Frustrating. Anything but easy."
That's the story she's aiming for.
Murga, who joined the Army soon after 9/11, credits her directing skills to her military experience. Leadership skills learned in the military help her understand how to direct people to finish tasks, manage teams and build relationships.
"Directing is also capturing feelings on camera, and that to me is organic, but a lot of that I learned in the military — to be honest and real with people and being able to connect with them," she said.
In the last few years, she has made a handful of shorts and TV specials ranging from profiling wounded service members to an ABC Christmas special.
Another project, "War Ink," is a documentary series she is simultaneously working on that captures words and photos, and video and audio interviews, of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who tell their stories through the tattoos on their bodies.
"I was crying when I saw it," said Patty West, AFI program director, of Murga's piece. "I felt like she had a really good handle on storytelling — capturing unique individuals, emotions and feelings."
That work, plus the appropriate character traits — "a very strong work ethic, but a really, really charming personality," West said — helped Murga emerge from this year's 250-applicant field.
"It is really important to me to shed some light on these experiences," Murga said. "There's a little bit of a disconnect; when you have less than 1 percent (of the population) fighting two wars for 10 years, the rest of the population ... they don't really have that connection."
Murga said it isn't that people are afraid of understanding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they "just don't know the right questions to ask."
In preparation for "American Girl," she has shared stories from her deployments with women's groups in California.
Through the organization Veterans in Film & Television, Murga is working with members of the military who will be donating their time to help her with the short film; production starts in July.
"This is the first step, making the short, making it well, and then we'll shop it around to members of the industry to see if we can get funding for the feature." For "American Girl," the cost could run anywhere from $1 million to $3 million, she said.
"Out of the 126 films that were made last year by large studios, only four went to women, so I'm looking beyond that, like, 'Why is that?' " Murga said.
"Our society is defined by the stories that we tell, and to me, without women, we're missing a whole lot of stories."
Kevin Lilley contributed to this report.