"Lioness" shows U.S. women on frontline in Iraq

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Women are officially barred from frontline combat in the U.S. military, but a new documentary shows that in Iraq, some are “out there playing GI Joe with the guys,” as one female soldier puts it.

Shannon Morgan, a female soldier in an engineering unit featured in the film "Lioness," is seen here on the porch of her family's Mena, Arkansas home in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Steve Maning/Handout

“Lioness,” which premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, is the story of female soldiers in an engineering unit who went on raids and house searches with infantry soldiers after their commanders realized it was culturally insensitive to have male soldiers search women.

In the film, one of the women, Shannon Morgan, describes how she felt when she first had to kill an enemy fighter. It also shows her struggling with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on her return home to Arkansas.

The title of the film comes from the name coined for the ad hoc unit -- “Team Lioness.” Known as lionesses, the women were caught up in firefights in places like Ramadi and Falluja, hotbeds of violence in Anbar province in western Iraq.

Rebecca Nava, a 25-year-old from Queens, New York, joked that Iraqis thought of her as a tiny “tinkerbell toy” because she is so short.

“We were also out there playing GI Joe with the guys and helping somebody out,” she said in a joint interview with several of the women featured in the film and the directors.

“I’m ... excited to actually show what we did and have other people see it. Maybe more women will come and join the military, too. My sister did,” said Nava.

Women account for 16 percent of all soldiers and 10 percent of deployed soldiers. While they tend to be assigned to non-combat specialties such as supply or intelligence, they often run the same risks as men, equally prone to being hit by roadside bombs or other attacks on convoys.

The film shows that at times the distinction between combat and non-combat roles has been blurred more than ever in Iraq because of the nature of a counter-insurgency war.

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Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers said they were interested in showing women engaging in new roles in the military and the film was less about Iraq and U.S. policy there than about women’s experience in the U.S. military.

“People are doing new jobs and are in a different kind of conflict than in the past when this policy was created,” McLagan said. “We felt like we’re going to document this turning point.

“Hopefully people who have more control over the policy will see something that is probably lagging behind the reality of what people are being asked to do now.”

Though the Defense Department bars women from frontline combat roles, the 96 female fatalities in Iraq since March 2003 represent more than 2.3 percent of the 4,071 U.S. military deaths, according to the independent website (

Government studies have shown nearly one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer PTSD or depression, and there are indications women are more prone to PTSD.

Morgan, 27, a self-described tomboy, found comfort on her return from Iraq in talking to her uncle, a Vietnam veteran.

She said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had been “phenomenal” in providing mental health care but there were not enough female psychiatrists and counselors to deal with the large number of women veterans needing help.

“I’ve had several encounters with male therapists where it just actually can’t work,” Morgan said.

“It’s hard for them to understand, especially some of these therapists, they’re used to working with Vietnam veterans. They don’t understand that women’s roles are evolving, and it’s even really that possible for us to be in frontline combat.”

Morgan and others in the film expressed frustration at the fact that Americans seem to be unaware of their role in Iraq.

“Generally for women, they need to be acknowledged and not be left in this gray zone,” Sommers said.

Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eddie Evans