By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
March 20, 2009 - In April 2004, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, five female soldiers unwittingly found themselves fighting alongside Marines in the battle for Ramadi and Fallujah. Their story is told in a documentary film bearing their unit name, "Team Lioness," which has been shown in private and public screenings throughout the United States and Europe in the past year. The Center for Women Veterans hosted the film at the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters here yesterday.
"These stories are important to us at VA, because women veterans are coming to VA in great numbers, and we need to make sure we understand their experiences," Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the VA's Center for Women Veterans, said as she introduced the film to an audience of about 50 viewers. "They became the first female soldiers in U.S. history to be sent into direct ground combat."
Since the American Civil War, women have played important roles in the U.S. armed forces during war time -- as nurses, journalists, pilots, engineers, logisticians and much more. But what they're not, still, is infantry, armor or artillery -- combat-arms specialties.
Still, many female servicemembers have been wounded and killed as a result of enemy fire. But it wasn't until the start of the Iraq war in 2003 that women began finding themselves engaged in direct fighting.
Team Lioness pioneered women in direct fighting, although somewhat unintentionally. The women were intended to augment combat-arms platoons to search Iraqi women for money, weapons and drugs smuggling at checkpoints and on patrols. But eventually, their new roles in the ranks of combatant units led to ground combat alongside infantrymen, cavalrymen and artillerymen on the frontlines.
The film opens in a wilderness setting with b-roll of trees and damp leaves lining a still-flowing creek. The only sounds for several seconds are crickets chirping in the background. The tranquil silence of Mena, Ark., is suddenly broken by the boom of several shotgun rounds fired at a turtle in the creek.
The documentary's introduction of Shannon Morgan, a former Army mechanic and Lioness, shows her innocence as a country girl, but with an obviously troubled past. Much of the film follows her around her family's farm as she hunts squirrels with her shotgun and shares emotional testimonies of her time in Iraq.
"I don't watch the news. I don't read newspapers," Morgan says in the film. "But the memories of war never go away."
Morgan and the other Lionesses said they never expected to have to fire their weapon. But they quickly found themselves performing combat patrols, raids and house-to-house searches with the Marines in what was considered the most dangerous region of Iraq during what was arguably the most dangerous period of the entire campaign.
The Lionesses talk about their first enemy encounters and the stress of seeing dead bodies for the first time, while fighting to stay alive. Morgan recalled battling with the darkest side of war just before shooting an insurgent in a firefight.
"It's something you learn to deal with," Morgan said. "I don't regret what I did, but I wish it had never happened."
The soldiers also talk about the difficulties of learning the tactics and vocabulary of the Marines they worked with. The transition from their Army ways, plus the frequency of enemy engagements, didn't allow for much of a learning curve to make up for their lack of knowledge of various weapons systems, Army Capt. Anastasia Breslow, a signal corps officer and former Lioness, said in the film.
"If everyone [in the platoon] had been hurt, I would have had no idea how to get back to the forward operating base," Breslow said. "I didn't know how to use the biggest casualty-producing weapon we had. I felt we needed to know more."
Although the film takes place primarily on the home front with Lioness and family interviews, it brings to light the realities today's generation of military women, and all combat support troops, face in Iraq and Afghanistan. The line that separates the front from the rear is blurred by the urban and guerilla warfare troops encounter fighting terrorism within the Middle East.
The nature of modern warfare -- fighting counterinsurgencies in random locations, as opposed to nation states on prescribed battlefields -- has made it difficult to define what constitutes a combat-arms military specialty and what doesn't.
Military women today still cannot legally serve in combat-arms positions, but they serve competently and are trained in a variety of roles and capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the lessons learned from the original Team Lioness. Their experiences prompted training for women that was never done before. They learn infantry tactics, qualify on more weapons, and are better prepared for the chance they may have to engage the enemy.
"As a result of their experiences, now each military service trains female servicemembers to be Lionesses, training that was not offered whenever this documentary was actually filmed," Brown said, referring to the weapons and tactical training female military members now receive.