There is a Lioness on the University of Michigan campus, and her name is Cassie Michael. You wouldn’t know it by looking at her, but this by-all-appearances typical undergraduate spent two 7-month tours in Iraq wearing Kevlar and a helmet.
Cassie had graduated from high school and attended U-M Flint for a semester when she decided she needed to move out of her parents’ house and really do something. “I joined the Marines with an Open Contract, but I didn’t really know what that meant.” It meant they would assign her as they saw fit.
Sent to Iraq in February 2007, Cassie was a jack-of-all-trades combat engineer, building porta-potties and chow halls. She was also the only woman in her platoon. Told to report as a Lioness, Cassie wasn’t thrilled about getting used to another new assignment in a strange land.
The Lioness program attached women soldiers to combat units despite the military’s ban on women serving in direct ground combat. Early in the Iraq war, military commanders on the ground realized that they needed female soldiers to assist with searches and raids; Iraqi culture would not tolerate male soldiers searching, or even standing in the same room as, unescorted women. Lioness teams searched Iraqi women for weapons and explosives.
Cassie’s Lioness assignment was intended to keep everybody safe, but it was awkward. As people approached either an auto or pedestrian checkpoint, men were separated from women and Cassie and her partner searched the women for contraband. “It was uncomfortable, touching a complete stranger,” says Cassie, “It was hot, and everybody was sweaty.” Older women were typically covered by burkas, while young women looked like U-M students who shopped at a used-clothing store, some with headscarves and some without.
While initially unhappy about the assignment, Cassie learned to appreciate it; it was her only contact with local citizens during her time in Iraq. When Cassie deployed to Iraq a second time, she requested a Lioness assignment.
Much has happened since that assignment. Cassie returned to the US, married another Marine, and returned to Michigan. After another semester at U-M Flint, she transferred to Ann Arbor. “I always wanted to go to Michigan,” she says, “I remember rooting for the Wolverines when I was little.”
Cassie and fellow student veterans introduced the documentary Lioness in the Hatcher Library Gallery as part of Veterans Week 2012. Lioness looks at the changing role of women in the military, where women are no longer assigned only to traditional jobs like nurse or administrative aide but are attached to weapon-toting combat units. The film follows the first group of women to serve in active military combat during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and extends beyond their experiences on the battlefield to depict the challenges the women faced upon returning home. The DVD is available to check out from the Askwith Media Library.