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Sunday, November 16 at 11:30 p.m. Independent Lens: Lioness

(Rochester, NY) Lioness, a new film by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers, tells the untold story of a group of female Army support soldiers who became the first women in American history to be sent into direct ground combat. Against official policy and without the training given to their male counterparts, but with a firm commitment to serve as needed, these dedicated young women ended up fighting in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq war. Yet these women are rarely—if ever— mentioned in news accounts of those battles. Lioness, which brings this story to light, will have its broadcast premiere on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Terrence Howard, Sunday, November 16 at 11:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11).

On April 6, 2004, a Marine combat unit made its way through Ramadi’s narrow streets on a hunt for insurgents. As the soldiers turned a corner they were ambushed by hundreds of Iraqis; a series of firefights erupted and spread rapidly across the city, igniting a week of bloody combat. Spc. Morgan, 23, and Sgt. Ruthig, 28, squad automatic (SAW) gunners, both survived this bloody battle; others soldiers fighting along side them were not as
lucky. The press has reported similar scenes and stories since this war began but what set this story apart is that both Spc. Morgan and Sgt. Ruthig are women.

Despite Department of Defense policy banning women from direct ground combat, military commanders have been using women as an essential part of their ground operations in Iraq since 2003. The role of Lioness was a solution born out of necessity. Battalion commanders noticed how tensions exploded when male soldiers interacted with Iraqi women during house raids and decided the presence of the right female soldiers would help reduce violence. They began to regularly “attach” pairs of women to all-male combat units.

The film tells the Lioness story through the narratives of five key soldiers. Their personal stories, variety in backgrounds, and post-Iraq challenges as wives, mothers, and daughters collectively take us through the complex issues that female participation in combat provokes. Lioness is the first film to bridge the gap between the perception and the reality of the essential role women are playing in Iraq, capturing an historical turning point for American society.

The Women of Team Lioness include:

SPC Shannon Morgan, Mechanic
Shannon’s journey from innocent Arkansas “country girl” who never expected to be sent into ground combat, to soldier who experienced the darkest side of war, lends the film dramatic intensity and poignancy as we watch her struggle to come to terms with her inner conflict between faith and duty.

SPC Rebecca Nava, Supply Clerk
A feisty New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage from Queens, she has played every role in the military family’s drama—soldier in combat, half of a dual military couple, mother of a baby daughter, wife of a soldier serving in Iraq and female combat vet whose younger sister recently deployed as well.

Major Kate Guttormsen, Company Commander
A West Point graduate and the highest ranking female in the battalion, she offers a clearly articulated understanding of the “grey zone” in which these women operated and the distinction between what they were trained for and what they were called upon to do.

Capt. Anastasia Breslow, Signal
Half Chinese, half Russian, and thoroughly all-American, she followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the military. Her diary readings document the hidden history of the Lioness program and the personal experiences of what it feels like to be on the cutting edge of change in the military.

Staff Sgt. Ranie Ruthig, Mechanic
A tough, Midwestern woman, ace mechanic, respected NCO and mother, she was often requested by the Marines for the toughest missions. Her observations of encounters with Iraqi women and children underscore the complicated role Lionesses play in an urban combat environment.

For more information, visit pbs.org/independentlens/lioness.

Pictured: Major Kate Guttormsen at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Photo Credit: Daria Sommers/ITVS

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