Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Jessica Lynch was captured and rescued during the war in Afghanistan. Lynch served in Iraq. This version has been corrected.
The headlines about female soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stereotyped them as nameless victims of sexual assault, ill-prepared damsels in distress (Jessica Lynch, captured and rescued at the start of the war in Iraq) or country naifs swept up in the infamous debauchery at Abu Ghraib (Lynndie England, now released from prison).
Yet for the vast majority of women in the armed forces, service is a tough job that they hope will lift them to a better station in life, and they persevere daily in an intensely male-dominated culture. The military is different from other traditional male bastions that admit women, such as law or medicine. Oh, law firms may have places they call war rooms, stacked to the ceiling with legal papers for major cases, but no one ever dies there. The military has real war zones where soldiers depend on one another for community and survival — and, of course, where people die.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were large-scale experiments in mixing men and women in war zones, the results of which remain to be fully measured. The Pentagon, however, seems to like what it saw. It announced on June 18, 2013, that about 33,000 positions formerly closed to women are now available to them, in a rollout of standards and training that began this year and will continue into 2016. Only positions in the infantry, Special Ops and a few other combat roles are off-limits.
This makes “Soldier Girls” especially timely. Journalist Helen Thorpe follows three women, tracking their ups and downs with faithful detail in a brilliant tableau of their overlapping lives for 12 years as they do multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and readjust to civilian life.
All three enlisted in the Indiana National Guard before Sept. 11, 2001. Michelle Fischer was a counterculture maverick from a dysfunctional family who joined to pay for college. Desma Brooks was an impulsive mother of three young children who joined on a dare. Debbie Helton, older and more conservative, joined for community. In an author’s note, Thorpe writes that a pseudonym was used for one of the women, but she doesn’t reveal which one. Then, while promoting the book on “The Daily Show,” she told Jon Stewart that Michelle Fischer was the invented name.
After the women enlisted in the Guard, they drilled on weekends and went on with their lives, grateful for the extra paycheck. Then 9/11 changed everything. Women as well as men in the National Guard were called to active duty for lengthy deployments. An important but seldom-told story of the two wars is the role of mothers, and “Soldier Girls” helps fill the gap. Single mothers were never supposed to go to war; the Guard had a rule against their enlistment. But that didn’t deter Brooks. She gave up legal guardianship of her children to relatives while remaining the primary caregiver, never envisioning a long separation. She was gone for a total of two years while her kids were farmed out to relatives and exes, and she tried to parent them by cellphone. She returned to angry, troubled children.
The book’s title suggests combat stories, but “Soldier Girls” is about relationships. Thorpe recounts the women’s many romantic melodramas — they faced aggressive, unwanted courtship from fellow soldiers. When they were away from the grave danger of the combat zone on their first deployment in Afghanistan (where they did armament repair), Fischer, Brooks and other young female soldiers in their circle had to deal with their colleagues’ barely controlled lust. The men, some of them higher-ranking and married, pursued them relentlessly, literally following them around the base.
The women constituted less than a third of their battalion and lived next to male regiments; they became immersed in the dominant male culture, in which sex and alcohol were used to ward off fear and kill time. Though Fischer and Brooks had loving boyfriends at home, they had affairs with strapping men as a form of protection. Soon men were sleeping in the women’s tents; a sex tape surfaced, and a female soldier confided in Helton about an unwanted pregnancy. At U.S. military bases, the women drank to excess, and in country they smuggled in booze or bummed it off European buddies. It was Sodom and Gomorrah in middle of a Muslim nation.
Iraq was harder duty. Brooks was among a tiny minority of women and so afraid of rape that she took to carrying a knife at night. The men in her unit refused to train her in avoiding roadside bombs; most wouldn’t talk to her. Fearing for her life, she pleaded for a transfer. Thorpe skillfully chronicles the changes in a once-spirited woman as isolation, stress and worse took their toll.
The primary export of America’s small towns today is soldiers. Now that military policy allows even broader female roles, we are likely to see the enlistment of more women like those in “Soldier Girls.” Their story illuminates familiar headlines. England, a small-town girl like Lynch and the women of “Soldier Girls,” has said she was following the orders of her fiance, who outranked her and was the father of her child, conceived in Iraq. After joining the military, England has said, she ditched her hometown love and attached herself to a big, strong guy, and she stuck with him in country; in her case the results were disastrous. Such is the pattern Thorpe chronicles so well.
“Soldier Girls” raises important questions about how men and women serve together and the differences in how they experience war, enabling us to see the subtle challenges female soldiers face — the hardships that don’t make easy headlines.
The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War
By Helen Thorpe
Scribner. 397 pp. $28