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.)