written by Daria Sommers

Female soldier holding rifle next to wall with Lioness written on itWhen the Veterans Breakfast Club invited me to screen Lioness this past June in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, I was thrilled.

Lioness tells the story of female Army support soldiers – the original Team Lioness – who deployed to Iraq in 2003-4 and fought in combat. At the time of the documentary’s release in 2008, we weren’t sure how it would be received. After all, to many Americans, the news that women had fought with the Marines in some of the bloodiest street fighting of the Iraq War was a shock. Women in combat?

I remember at one post-screening discussion in 2009, a concerned audience member said, “It’s bad enough we have men in combat. Your film makes it seem like you want women in combat too. Is that what you’re advocating?”

Another person seconded the comment. Then a third.

With the ‘gotcha’ cloud hanging over me, I calmly pointed out that they were asking the wrong question. It didn’t matter what I thought or what the audience thought. History had already turned the corner. Servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan were in combat and in larger numbers than ever before. The question to ask was “why weren’t these women getting the recognition and benefits from both the DoD and VA that they deserved?”

At that time, the Department of Defense’s Combat Exclusion Policy for Women was still in effect. Bridging the disconnect between policies in Washington and boots-on-the-ground reality was critical. Recognition was the point of the film.

In 2013 – ten years after the first Lioness missions in Iraq and five years after the Lioness documentary was released – DoD finally dropped the charade that women weren’t in combat and rescinded the Combat Exclusion Policy.

Lioness Veteran Shannon Morgan holding a rifle

Photo of Lioness Veteran Shannon Morgan at home in Arkansas. 2007

By then it wasn’t just the Lionesses who were finding themselves in battle. It was women who served on Female Engagement Teams (FETs) and Cultural Support Teams (CSTs), as well as pilots, platoon leaders, truck drivers and more. Still, it took a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of four servicewomen who were willing to take a stand to get DoD to confront reality. It was the first step in tearing down the brass ceiling.

Our June VBC screening put me back in touch with the women from our film and the network of Lioness soldiers who’d followed the first group. As we texted and emailed before the screening, I learned that many Lioness veterans were upset about an upcoming Paramount+ TV show, called Lioness: Spec Ops, starring Zoe Saldana and Nicole Kidman.

Army Captain and Lioness Anastasia Breslow in fatigues standing next to a young girl

Army Captain and Lioness Anastasia Breslow. Ramadia, Iraq. 2004.

Although it purported to be about women in the military, it applied the name Lioness – the moniker they had all served under – to a story that had little to do with the experiences of the women veterans who had served as Lionesses.

The show is fantasy Hollywood entertainment. Still, it rekindled in some the pain they’d experienced from lack of recognition.

One Lioness I know struggled for years to get disability help for her hearing loss. As a supply clerk, she had a non-combat MOS (Military Occupation Specialty). Since her Lioness job was ‘below the radar’ and not identified on her DD-214, she was denied disability support by the VA.

Two female soldiers standing and smiling with four Iraqi women next to a wall

Two Army Lioness visiting Iraqi women. Ramadi, Iraq. 2003.

It didn’t matter that she had patrolled outside the wire and that an IED explosion had damaged her ear. It took her five years to get coverage for a hearing aid she desperately needed.

Another Lioness barely survived combat when she got cut off from the infantry unit she was ‘attached’ to, found herself surrounded by insurgents, and had to fight her way out alone.

Two women and three men in Army fatigues smiling for the camera

Army Warrant Officer and Cultural Support Team member Raquel Patrick, third from left. Southern Afghanistan, 2011.
She tells her story on Episode 7 of Lioness: the Origin Story Podcast.

When she shared this story at the VA, they didn’t believe her.

And at least one Lioness as committed suicide. It’s impossible not to think that if she had felt a little more visible and validated for her service, she might be alive today.

Once you know even a sprinkling of these women’s stories, it is easy to understand how, for some Lioness veterans, the Paramount+ TV show is hard to stomach.

Twenty years since the first ad hoc missions, the word ‘Lioness’ has accrued a special meaning for those who served under it. Not only does the honorific serve as a receptacle for memories, bonds, traumas, and resilience — similar to the way company and battalion heraldry does for earlier generations — but the personal stories it signified became critical reference points in the fight for gender equity in the military and at the VA.

As the Paramount TV show’s July premiere drew near, some of the Lioness veterans wanted to find a way to speak out and reclaim their histories. They feared disappearing from their own story.

That’s when Todd DePastino, director of the Veterans Breakfast Club and a military historian, suggested that Lioness vet Shannon Morgan and I do a podcast. A podcast series, we realized, could be a platform where women veterans who lived this history — from Lioness to FETs, to CSTs and on – could tell their stories and write their own history.

We posted our premier episode on July 25th.  At first, we allotted time at the end of each podcast to talk about the TV show Lioness: Spec Ops.

But a funny thing happened. A few podcasts in, we realized that the women’s stories were infinitely more riveting than the Paramount+ TV show. The power of these authentic stories had made the TV show irrelevant.

What’s more, Lioness: the Origin Story Podcast has been provided to Congressional members and their staff as a resource to support two pieces of bi-partisan legislation, one in the House (H.R. 1753) and one in the Senate (S. 2014). Originally focused on retroactively recognizing women who served in Cultural Support Teams, the House is currently considering expanding the bill to include FETs and Team Lioness. If it does, the Senate will likely do the same.

To move this legislation along, House and Senate members and their staff needed to hear from the women themselves and get to know their stories.

Thanks to the Veterans Breakfast Club and Todd’s vision to create this podcast, I had more than my Lioness documentary (and its companion of short films) to refer to Congress. I also had the freshly recorded, first-person accounts of women who’d served in each of these capacities. Whatever the outcome of the legislation, I know that each time a veteran steps up to tell their story good things happen.