Army ‘Lionesses’ hit streets with Marines on combat ops
Army ‘Lionesses’ hit streets with Marines on combat ops
By Gordon Lubold
Marine Corps Times staff writer
RAMADI, Iraq — When Marines on the hunt for insurgents here kick in the door, Spc. Shannon Morgan isn’t far behind. She’s part of “Team Lioness,” a small group of women proving itself in one of Iraq’s hottest combat zones.
Women are serving throughout the war zone, but the soldiers in this band of sisters are unique. They’re joining male Marines and soldiers on offensive ops, taking part in raids, security patrols and vehicle checkpoints.
The women are not walking point or leading infantry squads in the assault, but their secondary role is no less important to the success or failure of a mission here. They accompany the infantrymen to conduct body searches of Iraqi women, allowing U.S. forces to hunt for insurgents while not offending the citizens they seek to win over.
These women are helping to win the peace in this still restive city, but the significance of what they’re doing goes beyond the war zone. By joining men on the offense, they are blurring the traditional lines that have kept women in combat-support roles and out of harm’s way.
But in the counter-insurgency fight now being waged in Iraq, a war with no front lines and no traditional “rear,” just about anywhere outside the wire qualifies as “harm’s way.” And the women here are in the thick of it.
Take Morgan. She’s considered the best squad automatic weapon gunner in her battalion. She can kill the bad guy — and has — and has accompanied a unit during a 21-mile foot patrol in full combat gear on a day when temperatures pushed above 100 degrees.
When the bullets fly, she runs — toward the fight.
Morgan is not literally kicking in the door on raids. She leaves that for the Marines or soldiers in the “stack teams.”
But figuratively speaking, Morgan says she’s opening the door a bit wider, helping to redefine this man’s Army.
“I think it’s a breakthrough for females in combat,” said Morgan, a vehicle mechanic from Mena, Ark. “Putting women out there on the front lines with Marine [fire] teams is letting people know that women can hold their own.”
A woman’s touch
Team Lioness, a group of about 20 women with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Engineer Battalion, was born of necessity less than a year ago, when commanders saw a troubling situation during their raids and other missions.
The men they sent charging into the city, often into private homes, made Iraqi women uneasy. Searching the women proved difficult, as Muslim culture dictates that men are not to touch women they don’t know.
Some women refused to be searched, a stance the enemy exploited. Insurgents took to hiding weapons and other illicit materials under women’s dresses, knowing they probably wouldn’t be found there.
So Army commanders added female soldiers to the mix and watched as the tension of the Iraqi women eased.
The Iraqi women became so comfortable with the female soldiers — often clutching their arms or handing them their babies during house searches — that the Lionesses were able to collect intelligence from them that the men wouldn’t have been able to get.
It’s the soldiers’ hair that does the trick, said Sgt. Brandi Burns, a 30-year-old construction equipment operator from Roswell, N.M.
“They see all that masculinity, they see these people coming in their lives, then they see that itty-bitty bun and that eases them,” she said.
Most of the women with the 1st Engineer Battalion company are construction vehicle drivers or mechanics who are certified on the .50-caliber machine gun. Seeing an opportunity to join the fight, they jumped at the chance to go on raids. Many have seen more action than their male counterparts.
“Our Army guys would love to put a wig on and go out and do this stuff,” said Staff Sgt. Ranie Ruthig from Wentworth, S.D. “And we like to rub it in.”
Marines learned the value of bringing a Lioness to the fight when 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, arrived here in March. In the months since, 2/4 has become one of the team’s biggest customers.
The leathernecks were decidedly skeptical when the Lionesses first appeared, because women aren’t supposed to be assigned to combat-arms units below the division level.
They took them in anyway.
“The Marines just throw you out there and expect you to do it,” Ruthig said.
Although assignments to certain Army and Marine combat-arms units have been closed to women, more combat-related jobs such as explosive ordnance disposal technician and combat engineer were made available throughout the 1990s. That doesn’t necessarily mean many women are filling those jobs yet, however, according to a recent study by the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank.
The reasons women are underrepresented in many combat-related jobs could be due to a number of factors, such as personal choice, systemic problems or the fact that not much time has elapsed since the jobs were opened to women. Those with less experience than their male colleagues in such combat-related jobs may still be in the training pipeline, according to the study.
It’s too soon to tell the effect of Team Lioness and other efforts to involve women in combat operations, but the practice will likely improve the image of female service members, said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project for the Washington-based Women’s Research and Education Institute.
“When this has settled down, I think the male Marines will have learned a lot about women’s abilities,” Manning said. “It will open up a lot of doors for women Marines. In history that’s how it’s worked … out of necessity.”
Leathernecks who have worked directly with the women of Team Lioness say they perform a valuable service the Marines can’t do without. The motto here is “first do no harm,” so having female soldiers available to help during missions involving Iraqi women is a good idea.
“When they’re there, it helps us out a lot,” said Cpl. Jared McKenzie, an assaultman with Weapons Company, 2/4, from Bon Aqua, Tenn. “It gets us out of searching the women, so it won’t get us in trouble.”
But predictably, other Marines aren’t big on women in combat, saying the female soldiers on the Lioness missions they’ve seen are sloppy and make them feel uncomfortable. Another Marine said he doesn’t think the American public is ready to send women into combat.
“It’s hard enough sending their sons off to war and watching them get killed,” said Lance Cpl. Phillip Scoggins, 24, who was sent to 2/4 as a combat replacement. “I don’t think they’re ready to see a woman get killed.”
Ready or not, 23 American service women have died in war zones since Sept. 11, 2001, the most American women to die in a war since World War II. There is no obvious outcry against the deaths of women compared to their male comrades.
Soldiers are more used to working with women, partly because there are more women than Marines in the Army and partly because they work more closely with men.
Overall, about 73,000 of the Army’s 485,000 soldiers, or 15 percent, are women; about 10,600 of the nearly 178,000 active-duty Marines are women, roughly 6 percent.
The greater percentage in the Army is due to the service’s higher number of job specialties, Manning said.
Soldiers are also more used to seeing women in their barracks, where they sleep, change clothes and watch television together. The nearly 20 women in 1st Engineer Battalion’s headquarters company live with the men in their platoons, a nod to unit cohesion that’s important if women are going to play a worthwhile role, commanders here said.
Even soldiers not familiar with the role Team Lioness is playing have open minds, since any woman stationed in Iraq is vulnerable, serving in capacities beyond her usual stateside roles.
“I think as far as putting them at risk, they’re at risk anyway,” said Army 2nd Lt. Alex Graziano, a 25-year-old native of Athol, Mass., who is with a transportation unit working near Baghdad.
Some women end up in combat by accident. But others seek out jobs that will put them in harm’s way. Women serve in military police units, and in Iraq, Army MPs have been doing many of the same jobs Marine infantry perform. They patrol some of Iraq’s meanest streets.
If there were any doubt about how they would perform in combat, four female MPs blew them away the night of Oct. 16, 2003, in Karbala.
In an intense firefight that killed three other MPs, it was women manning machine guns in the turrets of armored Humvees along with the men in the unit who allowed the soldiers to fight their way free of the ambush. A fifth woman, a medic, braved enemy fire during the attack, running from wounded soldier to wounded soldier. For their bravery, those five women were awarded Bronze Stars or Army Commendation Medals, all with combat “V” devices. Two got Purple Hearts. Army historians believe that is the most valor awards ever given to women for a single action.
Putting women in the fight is a good opportunity for them and it helps get the mission done, said Lt. Col. Dave Brinkley, commander of 1st Engineer Battalion and one of the architects of the lioness program. When he is planning a mission, he looks at his unit and sees soldiers, not men and women, Brinkley said.
“If they’re not suited for it, they’re pulled off,” Brinkley said.
‘I am going with you’
Although the raids are sometimes low-key missions, things can heat up quickly.
During a mission that quickly grew into an intense gun battle with insurgents, a company commander told some Team Lioness members to get into a Humvee and sit tight. Reluctantly, they did.
After his unit left, a squad of Marines appeared, and the women got out to continue the patrol as the fight raged.
“We’ll take care of you,” Ruthig recalls the Marines telling her.
Morgan went on another mission with Marines from 2/4, a house-to-house search leathernecks call a “bug hunt.”
As the unit walked through downtown Ramadi, they could hear speeches from mosque loudspeakers urging the people to rise up against their American occupiers, and the Iraqis began shooting.
“We moved from section to section, and every section we moved to was a bigger battle than the last one,” Morgan said.
As rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire flew overhead, a commander asked Morgan if she wanted to stay back.
“Hell no; I am going with you,” she recalled saying. On another patrol, she shot and killed at least one insurgent, an act that she declined to talk about in detail.
Blaming Private Lynch
Few women here identify with the story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the soldier who was captured in southern Iraq during the invasion last year and later was rescued by special operations forces near Nasiriyah.
Lynch is not their kind of warrior, the women say, and some here believe the hype around her story may have tarnished the way Americans view women in combat.
“She fell asleep on a convoy, didn’t shoot her weapon and then got a million-dollar movie deal,” griped one Lioness who believes there were other soldiers more deserving of the attention.
Still, not every Lioness is as gung-ho as Morgan. Their manner and their views on the missions run the gamut. Some women are softer and more feminine, others harder and more aggressive. Some pluck their eyebrows, others go bow hunting. Some want to get into the fight, some don’t.
Spc. Michele Perry, 26, from Hampton, Va., loves going on Lioness missions, but conceded that she would rather duck and cover if the raids turn into a firefight.
And Ruthig, who said she’ll fight to go on a raid, still doesn’t believe women belong in the infantry. Women have a greater role to play, she said, but she won’t go so far as to push for women in traditional combat roles.
“[Men] still have the picture of us as softer, weaker and more vulnerable,” Ruthig said. “But I’ll do my job.”
Regardless of how hard core they are, it’s always a question of proving themselves, the women said.
Ruthig had to show her fellow mechanics that she could turn a wrench as well as the next guy, but it took some pushing and hard work before she earned their respect.
The mother of a 5-year-old girl, Ruthig likes to have fun with her soldiers and jumps at the chance to make fun of them when she can.
But when it’s time to get serious, she expects the soldiers who work for her to be on board.
“I get called a ***** a lot because I am one,” she said.
The lioness program is likely to continue even after this battalion leaves, and both Army and Marine officials said they expect to brief commanders of replacement units about the value of adding women to the mix.
Army Lt. Col. Mike Cabrey, 40, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, based here, said he is impressed with the women he’s sent out with his men, and he said he hopes others will also be open- minded.
“I don’t think this is a door-opening experiment, what we’ve done here,” Cabrey said. “It can’t be used as the only case study for women in combat, but it is an interesting chapter.”
Morgan doesn’t see it that way. She doesn’t believe that one *** is different from the other.
To the doubters, Morgan says this:
“Suit up, come run with us one day, and see what we can do.”
Gordon Lubold is covering I Marine Expeditionary Force operations in Iraq. Staff writers Laura Bailey and Robert Hodierne contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
I dont think that the door of infantry are going to be open for women anytime soon, i dont think they should be either,or for the fact ANY combat specialty jobs, cant they just let us guys have anything , when is the last time you seen a guy wanting to have a period, or go for a shopping spree or something? somethings are just right and wrong ,being a soldier is a thing of masculinity from the begining of time and should stay that way.