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A new soldier story 

‘Lioness’ tracks an all-woman combat unit.

click to enlarge IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW: Michelle Wilmot, of Team Lioness, in Ramadi, Iraq.
  • IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW: Michelle Wilmot, of Team Lioness, in Ramadi, Iraq.

Near the end of the documentary “Lioness,” there is a scene in which a former soldier crouches in the grass, clutching a rifle, eyes shining with tears, and almost whispers into the camera: “When you take another person's life,” the soldier says, “you kind of lose yourself too. I know that God forgives me for everything I do, but you never get over it. You get on with it.”  

What the soldier says isn't all that remarkable. It's a sentiment that many an American soldier, from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq war, has struggled with down in the dark reaches of the night. What is remarkable, however, is that the soldier speaking is a woman.

Two months after 9/11, a 20-year-old country girl from Mena named Shannon Morgan joined the Army, and was eventually sent to Iraq as support personnel. By the time she mustered out and returned home, Morgan was one of the first women in modern American warfare to engage the enemy in frontline combat — something officially forbidden by the American government and the U.S. military.

Originally formed in late 2003, Team Lioness was — like many ad-hoc projects in Iraq — the product of necessity. Military commanders in the Iraqi town of Ramadi found that during late-night raids on the homes of suspected insurgents, male soldiers' attempts to search Muslim women often led to conflict. To help solve the problem, the commanders recruited several female support soldiers — including mechanic Shannon Morgan — to accompany Marine units during raids. Originally, the female soldiers were there to search and detain any women they came upon and to guard the unit's Arabic interpreter. Over time, however, as the situation in Ramadi deteriorated, the Marine units transitioned into a more offensive role, baiting insurgents into firefights in order to draw them out. Until officers higher up the chain got spooked over the possibility of a female soldier killed in combat and quietly disbanded the unit, members of Team Lioness were often right in the thick of things, including some of the fiercest urban firefights of the Iraq War. 

Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan are the filmmakers behind “Lioness,” a new documentary set to headline the Little Rock Film Festival this week. McLagan and Sommers worked on the film for three years, jetting all over the country to follow the members of Team Lioness as they transitioned to life back home. The stories they found represent a cross-section of American life.

“We need to know as a society the cost of serving and who is serving in our name,” McLagan said. “When you look at the film, I think it becomes as much about class in a way as it is about gender. You see why people enlist and why they've made these choices. … It's not all one story.”

Sommers and McLagan were looking at the new roles women are being asked to play in the Iraq war when they came upon the story of Team Lioness. They knew they had something worth pursuing — a piece of “primary history” that no one had taken note of at the time.

McLagan said that policies governing women in combat, written in the late 1990s, don't reflect the new reality of war. “It really reflects the key problem of the conflict,” Sommers said. “For some people, this may be an uncomfortable subject in the culture to discuss, but it's important. These young women who have joined the military, these are their lives, and they can be affected by this — both in terms of training going in and resources and services available when they return, essentially as combat vets.”

McLagan said she and Sommers tried to avoid politicizing the war.

“We really wanted the film to be about the soldiers' experiences and what these experiences meant to them and not make the piece about whether the war was succeeding or failing, or right or wrong,” she said. “We wanted to get deep into the women's experiences and their stories. That's why, I think, the story will continue to be relevant despite the changing mood of the country.” 

When first approached by McLagan and Sommers about “Lioness,” Shannon Morgan admits that she was skeptical. “I thought they were crazy,” she said. “I didn't want it to turn into some Hollywoodpalooza crap. Once they told me what it was about, I thought, ‘Well, you know, this is kind of an important piece of history. The story does need to be told.' ”

Whatever she thought about the project in the beginning, Morgan is glad she agreed. She said the experience of making “Lioness” helped her put her life back together. “Talking about it is one of the hardest things you have to deal with about combat,” she said. “So, for me, this film was definitely one of those last stepping stones I have to cross over for me to get on my way back to recovery.”

Morgan said she enlisted in the Army for college money, and because she didn't want anything like the attacks of 9/11 to ever happen again. Though she knew she would likely be headed for Iraq or Afghanistan, Morgan — having enlisted as a tracked vehicle mechanic — said she never expected to have to fire her rifle at the enemy. Tagged as the best target shooter in her battalion, however, Morgan was recruited for Team Lioness soon after her arrival in Iraq. Before long, she was attached to a Marine unit and saw house-to-house fighting in Ramadi.

“It was definitely something you have to get used to,” she said. “You're out there and you're definitely outside your boundaries as far as your role. But in the military, everybody has to kind of pick up and pull together in order for it to work. It was definitely something you have to adjust to, but that's what the military is about: adapting and overcoming.”

Following her tour in Iraq, Morgan said she would have re-enlisted, but her mother was sick and she couldn't get reassigned to a base closer to Arkansas. Since leaving the military, Morgan said she has kept in touch with her old Army friends. One of those reunions is captured in “Lioness.” In that scene, one of the women puts on a History Channel-produced DVD about a particularly fierce day of fighting in Ramadi. Though the members of Team Lioness fought alongside Marines that day, they are conspicuously absent from the video. “Witness real life and death combat,” the narrator intones, “told for the first time by the men who were there.”

“All that action you see on that History Channel documentary, we were right there beside them,” Morgan said. “I don't understand. It's not like we're trying for fame or anything like that, but I think when people do something above and beyond the call of duty, they should be recognized for it.”   

As with many soldiers, the ghosts of the men Morgan killed have stayed with her. As seen in the film, talking about it with her uncle — a three-tour Vietnam vet — helped her get through it. “The hardest thing when I got back was that I had a lot of questions,” she said. “I would replay things and try to think if there was something different I could have done. The biggest thing that helped me was what my uncle told me: ‘You just have to forget about it. You can't change what happened, and all you can do is move forward. If you don't, then the people who died over there died for nothing.' ”

Since filming on “Lioness” wrapped about a year ago, Morgan said she has made great strides in her transition back to civilian life. She goes to the VA in Fayetteville for therapy, and has started work toward a nursing degree at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. She supports the Iraq war, and says the United States should stay there until the Iraqi people have their freedom. As for when she and the members of Team Lioness will get official recognition for their combat service, only time will tell.

“It's going to be hard for America to accept that their daughters are on the front lines along with their sons,” she said. “I think it's maybe because they don't think we're capable of doing it, but obviously there are some females who are very capable of doing it. There are some females that are not. Maybe it's just the fact that America can't stand to watch their daughters and mothers and wives die over there.” 

 

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