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A new soldier story 

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.”

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