'Soldier Girls': Women of War Speak

The New York TimesAugust 14, 2014 

  • book review

    'Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War'

    By Helen Thorpe

    397 pages. Scribner. $28.

When they signed up for the Indiana National Guard, the three women at the center of Helen Thorpe's compelling new book, Soldier Girls, never imagined they would end up in a combat zone in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Michelle Fischer, who thought of herself as a "music-loving, pot-smoking, left-leaning hippie," signed up because it would pay for college and enable her to live on campus — not a bad deal, she figured, in exchange for what she thought would be 12 weekends a year, and two weeks of annual training. She'd be able to go to a great college and get in shape at the same time.

Debbie Helton, a beauty salon manager, signed up in the 1980s because she wanted to emulate her father, who had been an Army drill sergeant. She was one of the pioneers who integrated the unit, and by 2001, at 49, she had become a cherished den mother to the men, and a growing number of women, there. Being in the National Guard, Thorpe writes, "gave Debbie what some people found at church — a community, a way to connect to a larger circle, a means of submerging herself in a group that she held in high esteem."

Desma Brooks signed up in 1996 on what she calls a dare: A friend, who was dating a recruiter from the National Guard, urged her to take the physical, saying, "I bet you won't make it in." She ended up enlisting and discovered she enjoyed the camaraderie; with a cratering marriage and three children, she also found herself dependent on the paychecks, which supplemented her factory job. A week after the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, she was shocked to learn she was being mobilized; she had three days to figure out where her children were going to live.

In Soldier Girls, Thorpe recounts what happened to Brooks, Helton and Fischer when their National Guard units were deployed. In doing so, she gives us a dynamic understanding of what it's been like for Guard members who unexpectedly found themselves shipped off to the front lines of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their lives and plans disrupted, their families thrown into disarray. She chronicles how these once ordinary civilians were abruptly transformed into full-time soldiers, and how they coped with the boredom and isolation and terror of serving in places where land mines and IEDs and roadside bombs were a constant threat.

The debate over women in combat; the difficulties faced by women in the military (from sexual harassment within their units to service in countries where women lead highly circumscribed lives); the stress that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars placed on the U.S. armed services and on individual soldiers with multiple deployments — such highly complex matters are all made palpably real through the prism of this book's three heroines' lives.

Soldier Girls is based on four years of interviews that Thorpe did with the women (one is referred to throughout by a pseudonym) and on information gathered from their emails, letters, diaries, Facebook postings and photographs. (Sadly, no photos appear in this volume.) Thorpe's sharply drawn portraits are novelistic in their emotional detail and candor, underscoring the very different philosophical and political outlooks held by these three women before they went off to war, and the transformative effect (positive and negative) that their service would have on their daily lives, their sense of self and their relationships back home.

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