'Soldier Girls': Helen Thorpe explores the pain, power of three unexpected soldiers

Journalist Helen Thorpe goes deep into the lives of three women – Michelle, Debbie, and Desma – who signed up for the Indiana National Guard in peacetime and then found themselves serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Marea Evans
'I think the military could do more to ensure that its female service members are treated with respect and dignity,' says author Helen Thorpe.

When the three women profiled in Helen Thorpe's eye-opening new book Soldier Girls signed up for the Indiana National Guard, 9/11 had not yet occurred. All three women had different reasons for enlisting – family tradition, financial needs, a quest for opportunity or adventure – but certainly none of them ever imagined that she would serve in the combat zone of a foreign war.

But 9/11 changed everything. All three were deployed to Afghanistan, and two later were sent to Iraq – with drastic consequences for their own lives and those of their families.

Journalist Thorpe spent four years interviewing these women and drilling deeply into their experiences. She tracks them through terror, boredom, roadside bombs and many other aspects of life as full-time soldiers – including the very difficult return to civilian life. Thorpe recently answered questions from Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about her book and Michelle, Debbie, and Desma – the three "solider girls" at its center.

Q. Did these three woman that you profiled surprise you? Did they defy your expectations about "soldier girls"?

The time I spent with Michelle, Debbie and Desma was full of surprises. In our culture we inherit very strong images of soldiers – usually men – and it was constantly enlightening to hear about what it was like to be female and serving in the military.

One of the things that struck me as noteworthy was the way that Michelle found wearing a uniform to be de-feminizing. She felt very masculine, or stripped of her female identity, while wearing desert camo. She even wound up ordering sexy underwear from Victoria Secret to compensate – and then all of the other women in her tent quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, her close friend Desma was trying to parent her three children long distance by email and by cell phone, with a nine-and-a-half hour time difference, from a war zone. In ways large and small, they often found their identities as women and their identities as soldiers to be in conflict.

Q. Was there one woman to whom you were most drawn? One whose story you found most interesting or poignant?

Initially I felt most easily able to connect with Michelle, because she struggled to leave behind a disadvantaged background and to make something more out of her life by obtaining a college education. I never had to face the same level of economic distress that Michelle faced, but obtaining a college degree from a good school did have a similarly transformative effect on my life. And because she had gone to college, she was the most highly educated and the most sophisticated of the three women (even though she was also the youngest).

As time went on, however, and I got to know all three women better, I began to relate in other ways to Desma and Debbie. With Desma, I identified strongly with her desire both to have a career and to be a good mother. Her epic juggling act – enduring two yearlong deployments while raising three children – was an extreme version of the kind of juggling act attempted by all working women.

Finally, because I am closest in age to Debbie, who was 52 when she deployed to Afghanistan, I found the way in which Debbie was confronting the aging process at the same time that she found herself in a war zone to be very moving. 

Q. There is a lot of alcohol abuse and a fair amount of sex in these stories. Is that a problem for the military – or just what happens when people are far from home?

I did not initially realize the extent to which alcohol and sex would figure into this book, but I deeply appreciated that these three women chose to be candid about their own behavior and the behavior of those around them. I thought it was very brave.

Many of the soldiers in their National Guard unit found the experience of enduring multiple yearlong deployments – while simultaneously trying to maintain their civilian lives back home – to be extremely stressful. It seems understandable to me that some chose to rely upon alcohol, prescription pills, or unwise relationships as crutches to get through the experience.

I think it is likely that illicit sex and substance abuse escalated due to the unusual length and relentlessness of the multiple deployments. The two wars were long and hard and they took a tremendous toll on the people who were sent overseas. We have to be able to walk a mile in the shoes of these veterans before we even begin to examine or judge their coping behaviors.

Q. Would you say that these three women served their country and the military well?

Absolutely. They were meticulous and dedicated about doing their jobs superbly well. It's true that after they finished working, they blew off steam in ways that may seem rough-and-tumble to civilian readers – but that's how soldiers have always behaved.

It's just that in the past the soldiers were always men. Now many of the soldiers are women, too. The behaviors haven't really changed, only the gender of those being asked to serve.

Q. How about for them? Did the military do more to help or to damage them?

That's a hard question to answer. Michelle grew tremendously as a person by virtue of being sent to Afghanistan in 2004 at age 21. She saw a kind of poverty she had never witnessed before, and the experience put her own family's hardships into an entirely new perspective. She found her life's calling while doing volunteer work with Afghan children, which led her to decide she wanted to become an occupational therapist, as she found the experience of trying to alleviate suffering to be fulfilling.

On the other hand, the second deployment that Desma did to Iraq in 2008 was brutal. She was no longer working in a relatively safe job as a supply clerk and she was asked to drive a gun truck at the front of a supply convoy – a much more dangerous and stressful type of work. Then she hit an IED and returned home with PTSD and a mild case of traumatic brain injury.

At the same time, Desma is very proud of what she succeeded in doing as a soldier, too. I think it's fair to say that their time in the military did both – it damaged them and it helped them grow.

Q. Based on your reporting, are there changes you'd like to see happening in the US military?

The military was desperate to recruit new soldiers during the last decade, and many of the new recruits were women. Because of the military's pressing need for additional personnel and because of the ways in which women's roles in society have evolved, women found themselves serving in more and more dangerous positions over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The female soldiers I got to know performed admirably under those difficult circumstances.

But at times they were also placed into environments that were hostile – Desma, for instance, was briefly transferred into a previously all-male infantry unit where she was treated very poorly. She was shunned and treated like an unwanted member of the group. The aggression and hostility that female service members sometimes faced from their male colleagues was regrettable, and it seems likely that sort of unfriendly environment contributed to the catastrophic rise in sexual assault that took place on military posts across both war zones.

I think the military could do more to ensure that its female service members are treated with respect and dignity. It's a question of leadership. In some units, it seems leadership was lacking in this regard. But there were other units where women were treated quite well, and that's important to note, too.

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