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Bravehearts: "Lioness" follows 5 U.S. military women in Iraq

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 30, 2008 - The experiences of U.S. military women who went to Iraq as support soldiers -- cooks, clerks and mechanics -- but ended up in battle, are detailed in "Lioness," a documentary that will be screened and discussed Thursday as part of KETC-Channel 9's Community Cinema Series.

The documentary by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers weaves together personal accounts, journal excerpts and archival footage to tell the story of five female soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division who served together in Iraq from September 2003 through August 2004, during the growing counterinsurgency.

Official U.S. military policy states that women are not to be involved in direct ground combat, but female soldiers in Iraq -- a war without front lines -- have found themselves in battle, though they were never trained for such duty. Even now, the role of women in combat remains a topic for debate in the United States.

Lt. Col. Rosemary Ledbetter, who will take part in a panel discussion after the screening, said the role of military women has been changing throughout her 20 years in the National Guard -- but their service in Iraq will have historic significance. In previous wars, including Vietnam, military women primarily served as nurses or in other medical roles, but in Iraq, women belong to wide-ranging support units.

Ledbetter said the presence of women soldiers can diffuse tensions with civilians, and they can conduct searches of civilian women during military patrols. On the other hand, Ledbetter said, military women are often not given the appropriate combat training.

"If you are going to put women in these positions, teach us how,'' Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter is assigned to a medical squadron that helps prepare troops for deployment and works with them when they return. She also works with veterans as a physician's assistant at the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis.

Some studies have shown that female veterans are less likely to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder than men. Ledbetter believes that women, in many respects, are tougher than men.

"That's why women have the babies,'' she said.

But, she added, women can have more difficulty coping with some of the scenes they have witnessed during their tours of duty, particularly when women and children are involved.

"Mentally, it bothers the women more,'' Ledbetter said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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