The official blog of American Veteran Magazine, the national quarterly publication of AMVETS.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Women in Service: Marine Corps Lioness Program

Once Iraq transformed from kinetic combat operations into a stabilization effort in 2005, Iraqis quickly noticed an easy way to subvert checkpoints by using Iraqi females as suicide bombers and smugglers, exploiting American compassion to Iraqi cultural norms.

In an effort to counteract this exploitation of Iraqi women, while preserving cultural ideals that prohibit men from touching Iraqi women, American military leaders took a bold step, attaching female volunteer troops to combat units.

The U.S. Marine Corps was one of the first to formally implement its "Lioness Program," where female Marines could join combat troops at checkpoints and conduct outreach operations with Iraqi women. Initially, the primary mission of Lioness Marines was to search females looking to cross these checkpoints, but the mission has evolved over the years to include Civil Affairs-type operations and cultural outreach efforts.

From the program's inception, female volunteers quickly emerged from all different military occupational specialties looking to participate in the program.

In order to prepare volunteers for their cursory combat role, each female Marine was put through a week of special training in different weapons systems, language and cultural norms, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program tactics, and combat lifesaving techniques.

The Lioness Program--though not officially considered a "combat" role, considering it is constituted as a brigade-sized elementl--was the first time that female American troops served in the same capacity as their infantry and combat arms MOS counterparts.

The program has been credited with improving cultural relations in Iraq and was just expanded to Afghanistan this month.

Led by Marine 2nd Lt. Johanna Shaffer, the Afghan version of the Marine Lioness Program conducted its first mission as part of a cordon-and-search in support the recent Operation Pathfinder alongside 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

In a recent interview with CENTCOM Public Affairs, Shaffer acknowledged that the Afghan version of the program varied greatly from its Iraqi counterpart, given the cultural differences, but that it remained a necessary conduit to reaching out to Afghan women and children.

“We also do not know much about the daily life of Afghan women,” Shaffer said. “This provides us not only the opportunity to learn about the women, but also to build and maintain faith and trust of the Afghan women.”

Military leaders have acknowledged how critical programs like the Marine Corps Lioness program have become to U.S. combat operations, with similar programs online in both the Army and Marine Corps, and expansion into both major theaters of operation.

Now in its fifth year, Lioness continues to raise the bar for females who wish to serve on the front lines.

(Photos: Top: Marine Cpl. Jacqueline Parker, a supply warehouse NCO, conducts AK-47 shooting drills during Lioness Program training in Iraq. Photo by Lance Cpl. Jessica Aranda, released. Bottom: Marine Cpl. Jennifer San Martin searches a women crossing a checkpoint in Haditha City, Iraq in March 2008. Photo by Cpl. Shawn Coolman, released.)

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  1. deadrivermary@gmail.comMonday, April 19, 2010 3:27:00 PM

    Love the program and so glad I stumbled on it. I would be interested in an address and names to send packages to from Post 1992 in Mt, Dora, FL 32778. My name is Mary Conley and I am the Americanism chair for our auxiliary..Hope to get a response from you...Thanks

  2. I'm joining the Marines as soon as I get out of high school. When my recruiter told me about this, I knew it was what I wanted to do. Now that I've read this, I understand it better and I'm deffenently going to go for it!

  3. FETs are indeed an excellent addition to special operation teams. For selfish and none selfish reasons I hope that the USMC resurrects this program. Especially since the world is rapidly changing and globalization has presented new challenges and opportunities to where women are either the only people who can get the job done or add such a significant value that to not use them would incredibly decrease the United State's role as a leader in global affairs. Women in public service are the catalyst for many advances in government affair, public health, and grassroots initiatives. Personally as someone interested in joining USMC to train FETs in cultural, religious and tactical awareness I would love to see this program be funded despite recent drawdown. In the meantime I have decided to write my masters thesis on the history, role, and value of FETs in Military Operations.

  4. I was very impressed when my fellow Marine told me she got to serve in the "Lioness Program." It would have been an experience I would have loved to have been apart of!! I received a medical discharge from the USMC in 2003. Semper Fi!! LCPL Heather Streger Gregory