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Military Women Take on New Roles in Iraq


Despite official U.S. policy banning women from military jobs that could put them into direct combat, women have increasingly been part of the ground operations - and seen fighting - in Iraq. A special team of female soldiers has accompanied male troops on patrols and house-to-house searches. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry tells us, five of these women are sharing their stories in a new documentary film called Lioness.

Lioness tells the stories of a group of female soldiers who served in Iraq.

"It was a new experience. There are a lot of things about it that were unexpected," says co-director Daria Sommers.

She says she and documentary filmmaker Meg McLagan faced some unexpected challenges themselves in producing Lioness.

"It took a long time to get permissions and to find the women who had already returned home," she says. "We were quite persistent and said, 'This is an important story because it reflects the changing role of women.'"

Their 90-minute documentary focuses on five female Army support soldiers who were among the first 20 volunteers for a special all-woman team called Lioness. Ranie Ruthig explains how they were called upon to help defuse tensions among Iraqi civilians.

"We thought it would be a base-support mission to provide food, water, that kind of mission, you know?" she says. "Then the need arose with all-male units going out and searching houses looking for intel [intelligence information] and such.

"By laws over there, a male can't touch another man's wife or family females. They needed a female soldier to look for the information. That's actually how the mission started. We were there to do house-to-house searches, not to engage in combat. But when combat came, we had to fight."

Eventually, Team Lioness became the first female force in U.S. history to find itself in direct ground combat. Ruthig, a mechanic with the first Engineer Battalion, recalls a hunt for insurgents in Ramadi's narrow streets in April 2004. When the soldiers turned a corner, she says, they were ambushed by hundreds of Iraqis.

"We didn't know what was going on," she says. "It was nerve-racking, scary. I think the reason we got out OK is the basic training that the military does give us."

The documentary explores how female soldiers cope with the usual demands of military life, especially leaving young children behind, and also, the challenges of returning to civilian life.

"It was hard," Ruthig says. "It was definitely hard, picking up the mom role after a year of not being a mom and not having to deal with day-to-day care of a child. I'm married and have a 9-year-old daughter. Then she was young. She was only 4."

Ruthig says joining the Army was a life-changing experience.

"I joined the Army because I was at a crossroad in my life," she says. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went walking by in the mall and saw the recruiter office. I went in to talk to them. I needed to do something with my life until I figure out what I needed to do.

"I stayed in because of the people, the sense of duty and honor that you get out of it. My experience while I was there, I think it changed my life in ways that could never put into words."

Women have fought for the United States since the birth of the nation. In the Revolutionary War, they volunteered as cooks, nurses, laundresses and water deliverers. During the two World Wars, women expanded their noncombatant roles, including serving as supply clerks, radio operators, transport pilots and in all aspects of medical care. They continued to serve in these jobs during the Vietnam War. By the 1991 Gulf War, women were serving in almost every position the armed forces offered, and today, the number of women in the U.S. military has grown to 20 percent.

Lioness co-director Daria Sommers says new roles for women warriors have brought them closer than ever to the actual battle arena.

"We want to put names and faces on the emerging and changing role that females are playing in the military today in the United States," she says. "We want people to understand that they [women soldiers] are needed. They are asked to do more. They are asked to do different things, more things than they've ever done unexpectedly than previous conflicts.

"So it's good for Americans to know that when the military is asked and put in these situations, that's not only our sons, it's our daughters, too."

Sommers says the Lionesses displayed strength and courage. She hopes her documentary will bring these women the recognition she says they deserve and focus more attention on the reality of the roles women are playing in the U.S. military today.

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