June/July/Aug 2014

Battle Tested

A look at what American women face when they go to combat—and when they return home

Vanessa M. Gezari


IN JANUARY 2013, the Defense Department lifted its ban on women in combat. The Pentagon’s order opened hundreds of thousands of frontline positions in infantry, artillery, armor, and other traditionally male units to women. To many Americans, the announcement sounded radical, but to anyone who has closely watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone served in them, it was an institutional endorsement of ground truth. Female soldiers and marines with benign-sounding job descriptions, such as medic, supply officer, and truck driver, have served in the deadliest quarters of Iraq and Afghanistan. As of January 2014, 159 women had died in those wars; more than 950 had been wounded.

Women in the military also face other perils, sometimes from within their own units. As women’s battlefield roles have evolved and the armed forces have taken a more progressive stance on job assignments, the incidence of military sexual assault has reached a staggering level. A Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 military men and women were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 19,300 in 2010. Of those, just 3,374 cases were reported. And just this May, a new survey found that the number of reported cases rose to 5,061 in 2013. It’s unclear whether this increase represents an overall rise in sexual assaults or—as the White House and the military claim—a greater willingness among survivors to report them. Either way, one set of numbers stands out: Of the thousands of cases reported last year, only 484 went to trial, and only 376 led to convictions.

Major policy changes and crime epidemics rightly generate front-page headlines, but daily press coverage only hints at the complicated experiences of individual women serving in the US military. With a handful of notable exceptions, war memoirs are written predominantly by men, and most war stories have male protagonists; it is as if war itself, and the stories we tell about it, were inherently masculine. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spawned a remarkable body of memoirs, book-length reportage, novels, and short stories—mostly by and about men. The stories of women in war remain woefully undertold by journalists—as well as by the women who lived them.

For that reason alone, Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls is a welcome corrective. The book follows three women serving in the Indiana National Guard through deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan—and, upon their return to Middle America, chronicles their difficult readjustments to civilian life. Thorpe’s narrative inevitably addresses large, systemic issues such as women’s changing roles in war and the ever-present danger of sexual assault. But her book is laudable for its clear focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic life stories. Her subjects are real women, sometimes likable, sometimes less so, who grapple with many of the challenges their male counterparts face, such as alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thorpe’s subjects also struggle with more gender-specific dilemmas, such as reacclimating to motherhood after deployment and mollifying boyfriends who feel occasionally unnerved by the close bonds the women have formed with male soldiers who served alongside them.

The youngest of the female soldiers Thorpe profiles here is Michelle Fischer—a bright, sensitive child of a broken home who joins the Guard in 2001, at eighteen, to pursue her dream of attending Indiana University. Fischer is an excellent student, but her family cannot afford college. She’s taking classes at a local commuter school, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, and waiting tables at a Golden Corral when a National Guard recruiter offers her full college tuition, a $220 monthly housing allowance, $200 for every month she spends in school, and an enlistment bonus of $8,000. All Fischer has to do in exchange, she’s told, is show up at a Guard armory twelve weekends a year for eight years and do two weeks of annual training. An iconoclast who smokes pot, listens to Nine Inch Nails, and votes for third-party presidential candidates, Fischer thinks that Guard duty will help her lose weight while allowing her to attend a prestigious university and live in a dorm on a pretty campus. “Everybody in southern Indiana knew that the Guard did not go to war,” Thorpe writes, foreshadowing the big changes ahead—more than a decade of uninterrupted war that will profoundly alter the Guard’s role in national defense.

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A marine demonstrates takedown and restraint, 2010.

The other two women at the center of Soldier Girls are not exactly girls at the start of their combat duty. Debbie Helton is a soldier’s daughter and beautician who deploys to Afghanistan at fifty-two and to Iraq several years later as a gun-toting grandmother. Desma Brooks first appears in Thorpe’s narrative as a single teen mother who spent her own childhood in and out of foster care. She joins the Guard on a dare in 1996, and doesn’t experience it as anything like the path to education and self-improvement that Fischer imagines it to be. Brooks is, indeed, sexually assaulted by the recruiter after she signs her contract; she goes on to marry a volatile man and have two more children. She later gets a divorce, and starts a new relationship before deploying to Afghanistan with Fischer and Helton in 2004.

For Fischer and Brooks, the Afghanistan deployment has the feel of a college party, complete with smuggled booze, pot brownies sent from home, and illicit relationships with married fellow soldiers. Debbie Helton plays the steady den mother; on their sprawling base in Kabul, she is the one who waxes the younger women’s eyebrows and bikini lines so they can feel feminine in the risqué lingerie they order online. At the same time, however, Helton is the woman in Soldier Girls who most resembles an archetype of a male warrior. Helton is, for most of the book, the gung-ho, hardworking, stoical soldier who embraces military duty and discipline as she struggles privately with alcoholism.

Desma Brooks helps bridge the gap between Fischer and Helton. Smart, troubled, fun loving, and rebellious, she ultimately emerges as the book’s most complex figure, as well as the one with the darkest story. Before and during the women’s deployment to Afghanistan, Brooks is the unit’s merry prankster, substituting hot-pink sheets for military issue, keeping a cooler of booze at the foot of her bed, and using her job in supply to order burgers, hot dogs, beer—and even a Clydesdale horse. Before heading to Afghanistan, she goes awol to visit a strip club. In Kabul, she supplies Fischer with Vicodin and orders pink-flamingo statuettes, which she plants in the barren earth around the women’s tent.

But with three small children back home, Brooks is wrenched in a way the others aren’t. Thorpe writes with particular sharpness about Brooks’s attempts to balance her dual responsibilities as mother and soldier: “On Sunday, March 16, 2003, Josh turned ten and Desma got him a twelve-foot trampoline. Josh rode his Mongoose mountain bike off the roof of the shed onto the trampoline; he said he was being Evil Knievel. Desma took the bike away and turned on Meet the Press.” On TV, then–vice president Dick Cheney says that Iraqis will greet American soldiers as “liberators,” and that the war will be brief. “Desma stared at the guy. Was he serious?”

Back home, Fischer goes to college, leaves the Guard, moves to Colorado, and starts a new life working for AmeriCorps. But Brooks and Helton are soon sent to Iraq. For a host of reasons, this deployment is far more difficult. Helton is older and lonelier. Brooks has begun dating a female soldier and has a new job driving an armored vehicle on supply missions over Iraq’s dangerous roads. She has left her children behind for a second time, grows ever angrier—at one point whacking a male soldier in the head with her Kevlar helmet for making a crude comment about her friendship with a superior—and finally encounters firsthand the violence they’ve all been hearing about. She returns from the war shattered, only to learn that her family has unraveled.

Since 2001, some 675,000 reservists and National Guardsmen and women have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan—almost a third of the total deployed force of 2.5 million. “The Guard . . . had become an essential part of the country’s war machine,” Thorpe writes. The US military prides itself on being an all-volunteer, increasingly professionalized force, but Thorpe’s book highlights how fanciful this image is when it comes to the Guard. With the exception of Helton, the women in Soldier Girls appear to have gotten something entirely different from what they signed up for. Michelle Fischer “felt quite certain that the entire decade had been one long, terrible mistake,” Thorpe writes. Yet Fischer comes to view her own military experience as “a curse and a blessing, both at once.”

These reflections ring true. They capture the ambivalent character, not merely of women’s experience of combat, but of the universal war experience reflected in literature since Homer’s Iliad. But despite Soldier Girls’ strengths, I sometimes found myself wondering why Thorpe chose these particular women to carry her story. Fischer, Brooks, and Helton come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, and all three are white. The state of Indiana is 86 percent white, and the racial composition of the Guard likely reflects that, but I had hoped to read, too, about the experiences of African American, Asian, and Latina soldiers, whose stories are told even more rarely than those of white women.

Fischer, Brooks, and Helton are smart, competent, and engaging, but their language is often dead on arrival. “My what a great night,” Helton writes in her diary after her fellow soldiers throw her a party to celebrate the birth of her granddaughter. “I was so surprised. . . . But it was so nice because they know I would like to of been home but it was nice of my family here to do something so nice. It really was great!” At moments like this, less is more.

Nevertheless, Soldier Girls is a worthy addition to the literature of our most recent wars. The three women at the heart of Thorpe’s story share a tender, familial bond that, like so much else in war literature, is generally ascribed to men. When Desma Brooks gets back from Afghanistan, neither her boyfriend nor her children greet her in the crowded gym filled with balloons and flags; instead, Michelle Fischer and another guardswoman have become her closest kin: “‘Let’s get the fuck out of here,’ Desma said. They drove to a hotel and they ordered take out food and they did nothing but watch movies on TV for two whole days.” This homecoming scene, short on conventional family sentiment, is an eloquent reminder of how women’s experiences are transforming military lore. Like the rest of the tale recounted in Soldier Girls, it also suggests how much of their story remains to be told.

Vanessa M. Gezari is the author of The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

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