Three women struggle after deployment in Helen Thorpe’s compelling ‘Soldier Girls’

Michelle Fischer, one of three women profiled in Helen Thorpe’s compelling new book, served successfully in a combat zone in Afghanistan in 2004-05 — but she had a panic attack the first time she went into a Target when she came home, overwhelmed and outraged by the multiple choices of toilet paper.

Desma Brooks, who served with her, had a similar experience grocery shopping; friends had to accompany her on errands for months. A trip to Kroger derailed their friend and fellow soldier Debbie Helton.

Defeat by dry goods seems trivial compared to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, but all are among the postwar challenges encountered by these women, close friends and members of Indiana National Guard’s Bravo Company, 113th Support Battalion. All were deployed to Afghanistan, and two later were deployed to Iraq in 2007-08. As Thorpe observes, the women’s trials on the home front proved as difficult, albeit in different ways, as what they faced in war zones.

In Soldier Girls, Thorpe details the reasons each woman joined the National Guard — all signed on before 9/11 — meticulously chronicling their next 12 years, from 2001 through 2013. Thorpe follows them through training, deployments and time at home. The result is a thoughtful, fascinating and often heartbreaking account that draws on extensive interviews, letters, emails, journal entries, Facebook posts and more.

As in her first work, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, an exploration of illegal immigration, Thorpe is particularly drawn to the ways in which individual lives can be thrown into turmoil by political issues.

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Michelle, 21 at deployment, joined for a better life. She hoped to go to college, and the National Guard would pay. She wanted to escape the circumstances that afflicted family members — addictions, underemployment, lack of purpose. She saw the Guard as the chance to “go to a great school and get in better shape at the same time.”

Debbie joined when she was 34 because she revered her father, a drill sergeant. In civilian life she managed a beauty salon, which she found boring. She loved the camaraderie of the Guard. Her deployment call came during a wedding shower she was throwing for her daughter. She was 51 and, while she hid it from her family, was thrilled to do something she found meaningful.

A single mother of three young children when she was deployed at 28, Desma joined on a dare, when she was 20. Her rocky past included time in foster care before she left home at 15 and had her first child at 16. Despite her lack of deliberation, the military’s structured environment appealed to her.

While all of her reporting was conducted after the events occurred, Thorpe manages to burrow deeply into the lives of these women, seemingly downloading raw dispatches directly from their psyches. We learn incredibly intimate details about their personal and interior lives: how they questioned the purpose of the deployments; their feelings of guilt over missions gone awry; ways in which they shortchanged their children and significant others; and even how they often coped with the deployments through pills, alcohol and illicit affairs.

One marvels at Thorpe’s ability to draw out her subjects, which clearly has much to do with a prodigious capacity for compassion. When Desma goes to Mexico on her leave rather than visit her children, Thorpe’s nonjudgmental reporting helps the reader understand Desma’s need for self-preservation even while the fabric of her family is deteriorating.

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Soldier Girls focuses on these three women, but through their experiences the work considers larger themes concerning women in the military and America’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thorpe avoids editorializing, but she subtly constructs a body of often-incriminating evidence around hot-button topics such as gender discrimination and sexual assault in the military and American intervention.

We hear a lot these days about PTSD, but statistics pale in comparison to Thorpe’s descriptions of Debbie becoming incapable of restocking supplies or doing payroll for the salon she managed for years, while Desma can’t even seem to deal with her children’s laundry.

Despite the terrible hardships they endured — especially Desma, who suffered traumatic brain injury from a bombing in Iraq — none of the women say they regret enlisting. Nevertheless, their lives are forever marked by their experiences, often in negative ways. Thorpe leaves the reader with the question that haunts the women: “What had been accomplished?”

Andrea Gollin is a writer in Miami.

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