When Women Fight On The Front Lines Though women in the military are supposed to work in support positions, some of them are actually fighting in combat. The PBS documentary Lioness, airing Thursday, explores the lives of women on the front lines. Co-director Meg McLagan and Army Sgt. Ranie Ruthig discuss the film.
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When Women Fight On The Front Lines

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When Women Fight On The Front Lines

When Women Fight On The Front Lines

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Women are not supposed to be involved in ground combat. It's against military rules. But in an unconventional war like the one in Iraq, those rules have been broken. That's the subject of a new documentary that airs tonight on PBS. It's called "Lioness," and that's actually a term used in the military.

I spoke with one of the film's directors, Meg McLagan, and one of the female soldiers in the movie. Her name is Staff Sergeant Ranie Ruthig. As part of Team Lioness, Ranie would go on house searches with the men in order to pat down and calm down Iraqi women and children. But one day, she and the women in the Lioness team got caught up in a bloody battle with insurgents in Ramadi.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Staff Sergeant RANIE RUTHIG: I realized that I could run a heck of a lot faster with the panic of fight or flight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So you were terrified.

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: Yes, ma'am.

BRAND: And were there clear directions or orders about what you were supposed to do, where you were supposed to be, or was it all hell breaking loose?

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: I think all hell breaking loose describes it the best.

BRAND: And, Meg, why didn't these women receive any training just in case they would be caught up in unscheduled battle?

Ms. MEG MCLAGAN (Director, Lioness): Well, my understanding is, they get basic combat training, and then, when they got over there, I think there was a bit of a need to just tailor what they were doing on the ground. And the two colonels who came up with this idea to use women in this way realized that it would reduce violence to bring women along on some of these missions in order to not violate the cultural taboos of touching Iraqi women, having male soldiers touch Iraqi women.

I think, to a certain extent, there was a kind of process or sort of slippery slope where they started at one point, and they started to integrate the women into these teams that they were going out with, and then the next thing they know, they found themselves in this kind of situation where they were in direct ground combat.

BRAND: So after this was over, what happened next? Were you sent into any more combat situations? Were you pulled back?

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: The need was still there for us. They still needed us on the missions. And, you know, they have no guarantee that a simple knock-and-search or knock-and-greet isn't going to turn into something much more, you know, violent than what they thought they were sending us out on. I mean, our commanders never intentionally sent us out into harm's way.

BRAND: Did you have any idea when you went over to Iraq that you would be doing this?

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: Well, yeah, because - I guess the easiest way to describe it is, I joined the Army. I didn't join the Peace Corps.

BRAND: Yeah.

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: I think every soldier should realize that, when you join the Army, you're joining an army, a military function.

BRAND: But women are not supposed to be in combat operations.

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: No, but what else are you going to do when combat comes to you?

BRAND: And do you believe that you are as qualified as a man to be in combat?

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: I guess I can go back and forth. I can say yes and I can say no. I believe we're strongly needed in combat. I mean, I know that women can't run as fast or carry as much as a man can. But I think, push comes down to shove, you know, aggression comes out in females just as well as it does in males.

BRAND: And you can shoot a gun...

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: Just as well as the next one can.

BRAND: Meg, how many women have seen battle, combat, in Iraq?

Ms. MCLAGAN: I don't have an exact number. I mean, the fact is that the nature of the conflict over there, everybody is in combat. There's no front lines. You know, it's what they call an asymmetric battlefield. People running convoys, you know, they all have to be prepared to stop and defend themselves.

Obviously, this Lioness program was of a different order because they were going out, you know, on these - and going into homes - but basically, yeah, the rules, the existing rules now that govern what women are allowed to do really need to be revisited because they're doing it, and they're needed, and they're able to do the job. So I think we need to look at this policy and kind of bring policy into line with the reality of what's actually going on over there.

BRAND: Is there any appetite in the military to do that, to change the rules?

Ms. MCLAGAN: Well, you know, my understanding is that there is, that many people really understand that there is a kind of de-facto gender integration in these, you know, contexts in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan. And I think it's actually a sense of the public and Congress needing to catch up and address the fact that this is going on.

And, you know, the Department of Defense needs to bring it up and say they would like to address the assignment policy for women. And then Congress needs to talk about it and we all as public have to weigh in and have a national conversation about it.

BRAND: Along with the combat comes some of the negative effects that a lot of men suffer, and that is PTSD. And we see that at least one of the women in the Lionesses, one of the Lionesses, Shannon, is suffering from PTSD, suffering what looks like pretty severe PTSD. And let's listen to a clip of her from the film.

Ms. SHANNON (Team Lioness, U.S. Forces in Iraq): I really wish I'd kind of like lost my mind or something. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be home, and I'm glad to be alive. But in the same sense, I'm lost kind of because I feel like, as soon as I set foot on that place over there, I feel like I lost a part of me. I really do.

BRAND: Meg, was that just Shannon that felt that way, or did you find that with the other women that are in your film, the other women you interviewed, they also suffered from PTSD?

Ms. MCLAGAN: I have to say that I think there is a real universal reaction to war and to combat. This film offers this female perspective on this experience. I do think it is something that women are coming back in large numbers, and many, many of them are suffering from this.

And what we don't know is how do they experience PTSD differently, and how can we tailor the kinds of services we offer them on their return. And this is something that I think is somewhat of an open question.

BRAND: Ranie, what about you? How did you react to being in combat, to being in Iraq? Did you also suffer from some PTSD?

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: I think everybody gets a touch of it. One thing I've always thought that helped me out, whereas Shannon didn't, was, as soon as Shannon came back, she got out of the military. And I stayed in for another year in the active and then went into the Kansas Guard. And I think that's helped me, being around people that have also- having to work through it and being able to talk to someone that totally understands where you're coming from.

Ms. MCLAGAN: That's a good point, Ranie. I think, when you come out, and you don't have a structure, you know, and a community of like-minded people, I think there's, that difference is really profound.

BRAND: Meg McLagan is the director, along with Daria Sommers, of the new documentary, "Lioness." It airs tonight on PBS. And also Staff Sergeant Ranie Ruthig, she's one of the soldiers in the movie. And thank you both very much.

Ms. MCLAGAN: Thank you for having us.

Staff Sergeant RUTHIG: Thank you.

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

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