What's Behind "Lioness"

Kelly Wallace is a CBS News correspondent based in New York.
When I told my family I was doing a story about some of the first American women to engage in direct ground combat, despite U.S. policy banning them from ground warfare, my sister-in-law said she thought women have been involved in ground combat for years.

You may have thought the same thing or be surprised to learn that while women aren't supposed to serve in direct combat, they are.

In our story tonight on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, we'll introduce you to women who never expected to fire a weapon while in Iraq but who ended up in urban warfare.

"It's the longest few seconds before you pull the trigger, seems like it's all in slow-mo," 27-year-old Shannon Morgan, a former Army Specialist in Iraq, told me in an interview. "But you just got to keep telling yourself it's either you or them."

Shannon is one of the five women profiled in the riveting documentary called "Lioness" which airs nationally on PBS Thursday. The title, "Lioness," is the name of the ad-hoc military policy which began in 2003. Women joined all-male combat units to comfort Iraqi women and children during house to house searches.

"Women were playing a really, what seemed to be a really different role in the conflict in Iraq and we recognized that this was a historic shift in what women were being asked to do," said Daria Sommers, co-director and co-producer of "Lioness."

What the film does is open your eyes to what women are actually doing in Iraq, how they weren't given any combat training (Lioness women now get combat-weapons training) and how they struggled in ways only their fellow Lioness sisters could understand when they came home.

This came through loud and clear during our interview with four of the five women profiled in the film (the fifth, Maj. Kate Guttormsen, couldn't travel to New York because she had just given birth to her first child). In the interview, Shannon Morgan said that we she returned from Iraq, she couldn't sleep and at times stayed up for two days straight.

"It seemed like when I would close my eyes and go to sleep, is when things would start coming back to me," she said.

She found it so hard that she attempted suicide.

"I thought at the time, the only way to end this is to just take my own life," she said. "And obviously, it wasn't my time to go."

Shannon won't talk about the specifics of what she's seen and done, but makes it clear she had to shoot and kill – and definitely more than once. "I feel that when you take another human being's life, the innocence everybody has inside of them, I – I think it's gone," she said.

I cried the first time I watched the film, and the second time, and was close to tears when Shannon talked about losing part of herself in Iraq during our interview.

She said she decided to participate in the film and do follow-up interviews because she hopes to call attention to what women are doing on the battlefields.

"American needs to know what's going on over there, that we are over there and we are doing this," she says in the film. "Doing the exact same thing as males are doing now."

The Pentagon has since made Lioness an official program and now trains women to operate combat weapons but still bans them from direct combat roles.

"They need to be able to use women in this way and they will probably need to in future conflicts," said Meg McLagan, the film's other co-director/producer.

The filmmakers believe their film may re-open debate about whether women should continue to be banned from ground combat. Hearings are planned on Capitol Hill this spring on the issue, they told us.

Asked if the current U.S. policy should change, Shannon said it's time for a "big change."

"I think women have established a role that is new to America's eyes," she told me. "And I think if you want us to play infantry, why not afford us an opportunity to become infantry ... so I definitely think it's time for a change, a big change."