By Rebecca Huval
Female soldiers are no strangers to the frontlines, but the U.S. Army has just made it legal for them to serve in combat positions. Last month, the Pentagon repealed a 1994 law that barred women from infantry, armor, and artillery roles. But for decades, female soldiers have worked in the line of fire as medics, military photographers, and intelligence officers attached to combat troops. They have lost limbs and more than 100 have died in Iraq.
Two recent ITVS-funded documentaries show the harsh realities of female soldiers: Lioness and 2013 Oscar-nominee The Invisible War. Lioness spotlights women on the frontlines through a fearless team of female soldiers in Iraq — Team Lioness. During patrols, they calmed women and children in distress and ensured the cultural appropriateness of soldiers’ body searches.
In response to the lifting of the ban, Lioness directors Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan wrote via email: “It’s about time. Bringing policy in line with the reality of what servicewomen have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is key to achieving gender equity in the military…This in turn paves the way for women to crack the brass ceiling. Who knows? At some future date, when the Joint Chiefs sit down to advise the White House, one of them could be a woman.”
The Invisible War shows a different kind of fallout female soldiers have endured: rape in the military. More than 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted, according to the documentary. The film has already changed national policy. After watching The Invisible War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta transferred the power to prosecute sexual assault from the level of unit commander to colonel.
The recent lifting of the ban on women in combat “will help to reduce harassment in the military,” said The Invisible War director Kirby Dick. “Combat positions are seen as the pinnacle of military. [Women] won’t be quite as much second-class citizens. I think that will reduce harassment.”
Aside from the U.S., a dozen countries have opened combat jobs to women, including Australia, Israel, and Canada. Regardless, some military members condemn the U.S.’s decision to open combat positions to women. “It’s a fear of the unknown,” Staff Sergeant Reyes told The New York Times. “I’ve never seen a woman get killed or wounded. In my mind they may resemble my wife and I don’t know how I would react. It’s one thing to see a man injured or killed but a woman, now that’s a different story.”
Both films have had the opportunity to change minds and influence policymakers through Capitol Hill screenings. This past June, Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering held a screening for senators, congresspeople, and their staff, including Barbara Boxer. In March 2009, Lioness did the same.
“On the Hill, we felt that we were witnessing the coalescing of a movement around the latest generation of women soldiers and veterans,” directors Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan wrote. “Many of the key stakeholders were there, from active duty soldiers and veterans to lawmakers and staffers to VA and DoD employees to policy experts and researchers.”
Despite all the policy changes these films have inspired, our military still has a long way to go, Dick said.
Moving the power to prosecute sexual assault to colonels “was an important first step, but it’s still in the chain of command,” he said. “There’s a conflict of interest. The colonel may know still the perpetrator or may know the commander who knows the perpetrator, it’s a direct connection, or the victim, either way. And it should be taken out of the chain of command.
“I think our troops deserve impartial justice. These are the men and women who fight to protect our rights, and one of those rights, which is constitutionally enshrined, is impartial justice. If anybody deserves those rights, it should be the people fighting and potentially dying for those rights.”
Lioness and The Invisible War are both a part of Women and Girls Lead, a collection of films that leverage the power of women’s leadership.