In the new PBS documentary "Lioness," Specialist Shannon Morgan, a brawny, tattooed Army vet, conveys the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder in one simple line. In the woods of her native Arkansas, she sits with a rifle in one hand. On the brink of tears, sounding half like a warrior and half like a lonely young girl, she recounts the fire fight in Iraq that probably should've killed her. "I really wish," she says, "I had lost my mind."
Morgan never expected to fire a weapon. She enlisted as a mechanic, but once in country she was tapped to join a new program that deployed female support soldiers—dubbed "Lionesses"—on missions with all-male combat units. The idea was to provide a sort of cultural buffer, calming Iraqi women during searches, handing out candy to kids. But in the war's chaotic early years, the Lionesses were often pressed into more active combat roles. For the first time in U.S. history, women were serving on the front lines of war—even though it was still technically against the law.
Morgan ended up with a Marine unit in Ramadi during one of the war's bloodiest battles. She didn't know the unit's lingo or its tactics, and she lacked even basic combat training. Utterly unprepared, she didn't realize when her team was retreating, and she was left alone in the middle of an insurgent attack. In the ensuing chaos, she shot and killed at least one Iraqi man; the guilt haunts her so deeply that she has lost her faith.
"Lioness" tells stories that might otherwise be lost to history. By now, Iraq War veterans having PTSD is a familiar issue, but the subjects are rarely women. And for them, the silence only makes their homecoming that much harder, that much lonelier. "You don't get over it," Morgan says. "You get on with it." It helps, though, if someone knows you're out there.