This week at Sundance will see the premiere of the trailer for Range 15, a zombie movie starring US Army veterans. Sick of Kathryn Bigelow and other directors' depictions of ex-soldiers, former infantry officer Nick Palmisciano created an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to create a film that portrayed veterans as more than sad sacks with PTSD. The crowdfunder raised over a million dollars. Palmisciano then hired a lead cast of veterans, including Marcus "the Lone Survivor" Luttrell, along with roles played by William Shatner and Danny Trejo.
Palmisciano and his veteran-turned-actor colleagues want the film to express their politically incorrect comedy—yes, many veterans suffer from PTSD, but they also get through war zones through humor. This artistic vision led them to choose proudly offensive B-movie director Ross Patterson to direct the movie. For context, Ross's most recent film is Helen Keller Vs. Nightwolves.
On the set of Range 15 at DC Stages & Sets in downtown Los Angeles, I met with Ross and his female star—a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician (a.k.a. bomb squad member) named Mary Dague, who lost both her arms in Iraq. Sitting on top of a table in a set meant to resemble a dining room, she called what's left of her arms her "nubs." She used the nubs used to hold a doll version of her husband, James. When they're traveling apart, she keeps the doll with her. In between shots, we discussed the movie, how she lost her arms, and why she hate Kathryn Bigelow.
Broadly: How did you end up starring in the movie?
Mary Dague: I've known the Range 15 guys for about a year, and [army veteran] JT just called me one day [and said], "Hey you're gonna be in our movie." [JT's T-shirt company] made a mystery shirt [called the] meat pony. When you buy the shirt, you don't know what design was on it. You only found out when you opened it. I ordered four of them. [They're veterans], and that's part of the reason I bought the shirts in the first place. I'd seen some of their videos, and I like to [support] veteran companies, so then Range 15 was pretty easy.
What's your role?
I play the Colonel's daughter. I like that [the script is] raw. It's a lot of dark humor—it's not the fluffed up military that most Hollywood movies portray.
How did you end up in the military?
I got sort of quasi-engaged at the end of high school. My fiancé, for lack of better term, asked me to marry him and asked me to wait a year, so I lost my scholarship. We were at dinner with his parents one night, and his mom and I were in the kitchen cooking. His mom is like the woman's woman. She cooks, she cleans, she sews, she works, she's got 14 kids—not all of them are hers. The first wife died and she took over the family, and she is just unstoppable. That's my nightmare. I've never wanted to settle down and have kids and a white picket fence or anything like that. While we were chopping vegetables, she said to me, "Don't worry, Mary, I'll train you to be the perfect housewife!" I joined the army two weeks later.
Are you still involved with the army?
I do speaking and stuff for resiliency and helping guys with suicide prevention. That's a huge thing for me right now, just because it has become an epidemic in the military. Not everybody can handle war—people who get PTSD can't handle it—but a lot of the guys who go really far overboard, they don't have a lot of coping mechanisms to begin with. Then they go into this intense situation, shit happens, and then they just don't get care afterwards. They start to lose trust in anybody but their brothers, so they don't seek help from the VA. I've had, personally, a great experience with the VA, but a lot my friends have not. But honestly, if the VA fucks with me, it's bad PR, so why would they?
Is it emotionally harder for men?
I do. It's a double sided coin though. On the chicks' end, they tend to not get treated like they're veterans. I've had so many friends who go in, and they're like, "Oh, what's the veteran's name?" Then they're like "It's me," and they're like "Oh, you're not here for your husband?"
How did you start working as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician?
Mostly I was curious. Don't get me wrong: I had the image in my head about me being a superhero and saving the day and being awesome, but I always wanted to make a difference. Once they said, "Explosives Ordnance Disposal," I looked at the guy like, "Is that the bomb squad?" And he was like, "No, it's Explosives Ordnance Disposal." It's the bomb squad, he was trying to church it up.
How long did your training take?
[Training takes] about seven months. Mine was a little bit longer—I got run over by a taxi and at one point dislocated my elbow. He parked on my foot, and like an idiot, I tried to pull it out and tore my Achilles tendon. I am the luckiest girl on earth.
How was Iraq?
It was hot [and] smelled bad. There are literally trash heaps taller than me that line the road. The whole place is like a dumping ground. There are dead animals in [the heaps], and garbage that you don't know how long it's been there. It's very sandy, and when [the sand] gets wet, it sticks to itself and becomes this super thick mud that you can't get off of anything. It was really gross.
What happened on the day you lost your arms?
We got called out for an IED that the Iraqi army had been driving around with. It was about up to my knee, maybe taller, so about two or three feet tall. We took all the explosives out of it (I was being trained as a team leader at the time so I was down and hands-on), put the cap in the cap pig (it's the case you put a cap in), then I carried it back to the truck, and I laid it down in the truck. But when I had thrown the device up onto my shoulder, my weapon was slung. It kind of shifted to the back so it was choking me, so I laid the device in the truck, and I went to adjust my weapon. When I looked up the device was rocking, so I hugged it instinctively, and it detonated. There are a million things that could have happened. What they think happened is there are two runners in the back of the JERRV [Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle]. They think it was on one, and it rolled off, and it was just enough to kick it off. But I could have scooted it, I could have pushed it, I could have just pissed it off—it's explosives, and homemade ones at that.
You're carrying a doll of your husband James. Did you meet him in Iraq?
It was right after I'd been blown up. I had broken my knee getting juice, so I was in a wheelchair. I have this thing where if I recline for too long and I get up and walk somewhere, I stop and I pass out. I did that while I stopped at the fridge, and my right foot went under the fridge and trapped it, so when I fell it snapped everything at the top of my knee. Like I said, I'm lucky—I was in a wheelchair and armless. We went to the EOD memorial, which is the first weekend in May every year. It's a big thing in our community because we put all the names on the wall of all the techs that were killed in action that year, and we read every name on the wall. I went to go visit my instructors—a good couple of them are there. And they were like, "Mary, go fuck with the students!" So I went into the hallway, and I started waving my nubs and rolling down the hallway shouting ,"Get out now! No one told me this shit would happen! My life is over!" It's not; I was just hamming it up. James happened to be in the hallway. Then he got stationed at my unit. He knew all the guys that I knew. He heard all the Mary stories.
What are the Mary stories?
I'm very easygoing until anyone screws with my team or my unit, and then I just become a wolf. I would kind of fly off the handle a lot. It didn't matter if it was a colonel I was talking to or someone of a lower ranking. I did not care. They were fucking with my guys, and then the [guys] were my brothers, so I also fought with them relentlessly—I had a lot [of stories]. I was like a cross between the unit sister and the unit mother, so it was a very odd position for me.
Was it hard being one of the few women in your division?
No, it wasn't for me. I just did my job, and I didn't complain about shit. Honestly, the guys called me Steve for the longest time. They swore I wasn't a girl.
As a real-life female version of The Hurt Locker, do you dislike Bigelow's perception of veterans?
There's a time and a place where we're all quiet professionals, but most of the time we're very rough around the edges—a lot of dark humor. Like, I've been asked a million times if I think the guys here [in the movie] are exploiting me, and [they're] not at all. Most of my lines are stuff that I actually say to people. I don't have a problem making fun of [the injury] Honestly, half my wardrobe is T-Rex t-shirts, like "T-Rex Hates Hand Grenades," "Worst Drummer Ever," and things like that. I find it funny, and it helps break the ice with people. Most of the time, people tend to think that it really bothers me and my life really is over and all that. No! It's fine. It's not that bad.