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

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by He­len Thorpe, Scrib­ner,

“Every­body in south­ern In­di­ana knew that the [Na­tional] Guard did not go to war.” And so, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, three in­tel­li­gent, con­sci­en­tious, and ca­pa­ble women en­listed in the In­di­ana Army Na­tional Guard’s Bravo Company, 113th Support Bat­tal­ion, and be­came friends. The en­list­ment pack­ages were tempt­ing. They in­cluded bonuses to join, in-state col­lege tu­ition, hous­ing al­lowances, bonuses for stay­ing in school, and pay­ment of out­stand­ing stu­dent loans. Serv­ing one week­end a month and two weeks dur­ing the sum­mer after ini­tial train­ing was doable. Per­haps there would be duty in the af­ter­math of a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. When they swore to de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion and the coun­try, no for­eign foes seemed to threaten the United States. He­len Thorpe pro­files them in Sol­dier Girls: The Bat­tles of Three Women at Home and at War. It is a thought­ful, im­por­tant, and provoca­tive book.

Michelle Fis­cher was a com­mu­nity- col­lege stu­dent who’d achieved a near-per­fect score on the Armed Ser­vices bat­tery of tests. She en­listed at age eigh­teen to re­al­ize her am­bi­tion to earn a Univer­sity of In­di­ana de­gree. She was short, buxom, and blond, pre­sent­ing an an­gelic ap­pear­ance that be­lied her pen­chant for pot, punk rock, and boys. She con­sis­tently voted for Ralph Nader.

Urged by a friend to join the Guard, the at­trac­tive and so­cia­ble Desma Brooks re­jected the idea. She joined un­in­ten­tion­ally, think­ing it wasn’t such a big com­mit­ment. For the twen­tyeight-year-old sin­gle mother of three, the money was good. “Ex­traor­di­nar­ily bright,” she had passed her GED in the 90th per­centile.

Un­like Fis­cher and Brooks, fifty-two-year-old Deb­bie Hel­ton, a tall, slim woman, had imag­ined her­self in the mil­i­tary. Her fa­ther had served as a drill sergeant, and she loved guns. But back when she was a twenty-three-year-old sin­gle mother, she was re­jected when she tried to en­list. Eleven years, later she was el­i­gi­ble. The only woman to achieve a per­fect score for shoot­ing, she wanted to be a sniper.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed ev­ery­thing, and mil­i­tary ac­tion against ter­ror­ists be­gan. All three women were called to ac­tive duty. Fis­cher’s pretty dreams of col­lege life up­ended, and Brooks was sep­a­rated from her chil­dren. Hel­ton, how­ever, could re­al­ize a pur­pose larger than man­ag­ing a beauty salon.

While the os­ten­si­ble bat­tle was against ter­ror­ists, the Hoosier women’s bat­tles be­gan be­fore leav­ing the corn­fields of In­di­ana and Amer­i­can shores in gen­eral. In 2001, 12.5 per­cent of the to­tal Army were women — but they were banned from com­bat. The all-male cul­ture of the mil­i­tary pre­vailed. In her weapons class at Camp Aberdeen, Fis­cher outscored an Illi­nois sol­dier who vied with her for the high­est marks. Yet he was elected class leader. Her in­tel­li­gence in class didn’t earn her her fel­low sol­diers’ re­spect, and out­side the class­room they be­sieged her. Brooks was sex­u­ally as­saulted by the re­cruiter who han­dled her pa­per­work after she signed on, but she never re­ported the in­ci­dent. Hel­ton coped with the pre­dom­i­nant male cul­ture by try­ing to be one of the boys. Per­form­ing the du­ties of a sol­dier with a rank higher than hers, she still re­ceived the salary for an E-4. Th­ese at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iors were cer­tainly preva­lent among the men th­ese women joined in the troop trans­port air­craft sent to Afghanistan. And, in an even worse twist, Fis­cher, Brooks, and Hel­ton would be serv­ing in a Mus­lim coun­try where the treat­ment of women was down­right me­dieval.

Afghanistan’s monochro­matic land­scape of­fered sand­storms, an earth­quake, bomb-rub­bled street scenes, and lofty peaks on the hori­zon. The troops con­tended with un­com­fort­able liv­ing con­di­tions, the rigid­ity of army life, and bore­dom while serv­ing as a support bat­tal­ion. At one point, 20 women were liv­ing in a tent de­signed to ac­com­mo­date 10 of them. Man­ag­ing to skirt in­sub­or­di­na­tion at the time, Fis­cher had re­peat­edly re­belled by wear­ing a braided rainbow an­klet. To brighten the area at Camp Phoenix, Brooks or­dered 50 hot-pink plas­tic flamin­gos and a sign read­ing “Keep Off the Grass.”

There were myr­iad ways of cop­ing, among them “de­ploy­ment af­fairs” be­tween sol­diers and across ranks, de­spite reg­u­la­tions. Val­ium and Am­bien were avail­able. Hashish could be ob­tained. Ev­ery­one seemed to have lap­tops or DVD play­ers. Dis­ney cartoons, Sex and the City, and Johnny Depp movies cir­cu­lated. Fis­cher and Brooks re­sorted to al­co­hol, pre­scrip­tion drugs, and sex. Hel­ton’s so­lace was al­co­hol.

The bat­tles didn’t end when th­ese women re­turned home. Fis­cher wished she could meet a fel­low fe­male veteran who was in “a suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ship with a civil­ian man.” Brooks’ bat­tles were in­ten­si­fied by her un­di­ag­nosed post-trau­matic stress disorder. Dur­ing her sec­ond de­ploy­ment in Iraq, the 8-foot-wide ar­mored se­cu­rity ve­hi­cle she drove hit a mine. She sus­tained a se­vere con­cus­sion. After re­turn­ing from Iraq, a sec­ond de­ploy­ment, Hel­ton bat­tled de­pres­sion.

Thorpe’s care­ful writ­ing, re­port­ing, and ju­di­cious use of de­tail, back­ground, and hu­mor help to cast a bright light on the re­al­i­ties of Amer­ica’s wars and their costs, in­clud­ing their rip­ple ef­fects on com­bat­ants and the peo­ple around them.

— Nancy Cogge­shall

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