When a local journalist placed her father into long-term Alzheimer's care, she wrote down his life story and introduced his nursing staff – not to an anonymous patient– but to the father she loved.
Guest Host: Rebecca Sheir
Michelle, Desma, and Debbie joined the National Guard for different reasons, at very different stages of their lives. What started as a one-weekend-a-month commitment close to home in Indiana changed dramatically after September 11th, 2001. Long deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan profoundly affected the women and their relationships with friends and family back home. We talk with veteran journalist Helen Thorpe, who traced their lives over 12 years, from enlistment to deployment and back home again.
- Helen Thorpe Journalist; author, "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War"
MS. REBECCA SHEIRFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Rebecca Sheir sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, like thousands of other Americans, Michelle, Desma, and Debbie signed on the National Guard in their home state for a one-weekend-a-month commitment. They joined for different reasons. Michelle dreamt of going to college. Desma, a single mom, needed extra cash to support her three kids. Debbie wanted to fulfill a long-time dream of joining the military before she was too old to serve.
MS. REBECCA SHEIRAs National Guard members, they thought they might be called up to, say, toss sandbags on a riverbank or clean up after a storm. But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, everything changed. As members of the National Guard, the women were sent for long deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Journalist and author Helen Thorpe traced these three women's lives across a dozen years and shares their stories in her new book, "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War." Helen, thank you for joining us.
MS. HELEN THORPEIt's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
SHEIRAnd you, too, can join the conversation. Are you a woman who served in the military? What was your experience? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, Helen, your first book was called, "Just Like Us."
SHEIRAnd in that book, you explored the lives of young Latinas in the United States. So what inspired you to write your next book about women in the military?
THORPEI was interviewing veterans who were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan because I was trying to understand the transition back home. And during that process, I met the young woman who's called Michelle Fisher in the book, which is actually a pseudonym. She asked for a pseudonym. And the other two women really wanted to use their real names. I was struck by her ability to articulate the experience. She's incredibly intelligent and just very unusually articulate. And she also had letters written to her father and her boyfriends, just a lot of documentary evidence.
THORPEAnd then she introduced me to her two friends, Desma and Debbie. And I realized they represented kind of a generational, you know, they represented three different generations of women serving. There's 30 years difference in age from Michelle, the youngest, to Debbie, the oldest. And Desma is in the middle. And I really liked their multiple vantage point -- as women of different ages and very, very different political beliefs as well -- on their experiences.
SHEIRWell, I'd love to talk more about the three women and how different they were and where they all came from. So can you talk a little bit about each one? And then I'll have you read a little from the book. You've got some beautiful descriptions of each woman. So let's start with Desma.
THORPESure. Reporting a book with Desma was a fascinating experience for me, because spending time with Desma, you really kind of get to experience her post-traumatic stress disorder. Now I met them after their two deployments. And the book, of course, starts at the beginning of the story and talks about why they enlisted and everything. But I have these very vivid memories of driving with Desma in a car on the highway as she is hugging the bumper of the car in front of her after having come back from Iraq. And we'll talk more about her experiences in Iraq.
THORPEBut she is a single mom with three children. She was working three different jobs to support those children before the deployments. She was struggling economically. She had dropped out of high school at 15. She had gotten pregnant for the first time at 16. She had her first child at 17. And she joined the National Guard at 20. She had two more children after she enlisted. And so, you know, I think her experience -- being in the Guard and doing two year-long deployments as a single mother with three children -- I found that very extraordinary and I was really interested in learning more about her life right after I met her.
THORPEAnd then spending time with her and coming to understand how the experience of serving had transformed her and the struggles she was having coming back, I, you know, I think, in a certain way she kind of steals the show in the book.
SHEIRWell, how about if you share a passage from the book about her? And on page 61 there's a bit that tells us a lot about Desma.
THORPEOkay. This is from a moment in Desma's youth, growing up. "Desma was extraordinarily bright. And before she finished elementary school, she devoured 'The Secret Garden' and 'Little Women.' Later she raced through 'Oliver Twist' and 'The Raven.' The books spirited her away from her surroundings and shielded her from her mother's rage. Her mother vacillated between catatonia and violence, according to Desma. When displeased, she might beat a child. But if Desma was reading, her mother left her alone, Desma said.
THORPEIn seventh grade, both Desma and her younger brother, the last of the five children in their family, were placed into foster care. The notes that would eventually come to be contained in Desma's Veterans Administration file alluded to some kind of abuse. But she did not want to discuss the incident, even years later, with her V.A. therapist. 'It's not who I am,' Desma said. 'It has nothing to do with how I handle my day-to-day. It has nothing to do with how I raise my children. I raise my children in a better atmosphere than I grew up in. That's the only way that affected me.'"
SHEIRAnd we eventually learn that Desma starts to see the same therapist that Debbie is seeing.
SHEIRShe's the oldest of the three women. Can you read a little bit about her?
THORPEYes. Debbie had always wanted to join the military. Her father had been a drill sergeant in the Army. And she actually was turned away the first time she tried to enlist because she had a young child at home. And later she learned that she could join the National Guard, which she was thrilled to get to do. And she was one of the first women in her National Guard unit, which was a support battalion. And she entered an extremely mail-oriented culture. And I'll start reading there.
THORPE"She loved it. Once she walked into a late-night game of cards where a bunch of guys who had been discussing the merits of various pairs of breasts were suddenly confronted by an individual bearing breasts herself and were thrown into a state of confusion. Debbie resolved the awkwardness by saying she considered a certain man to be especially well hung. 'They looked like they were about to drop their teeth,' she would recall later. Debbie did not have trouble discerning which men would prove accepting. Some of them didn't want females. Some of them only wanted to talk to her for one reason. Others made a point to come up and shake her hand.
THORPE'Welcome aboard,' one of these men told her. 'You're going to do just fine. Don't worry about being a female.'"
SHEIROn the other side of the coin, we have Michelle...
SHEIR...who actually -- keeping her femininity was really, really important to her.
SHEIRRead a little bit about Michelle Fisher.
THORPEYeah. One thing I love -- one of the many things I love about getting to know these three women are how you see Debbie and Michelle become very, very close and have almost a mother-daughter type of relationship during their deployment, when they're so utterly different in terms of their politics and their views about the military and their feelings about the conflict they'd get caught up in.
THORPE"Everybody Michelle knew seemed bled of hope. She had grown up watching businesses shutter and jobs disappear and her mother slip into poverty and her siblings enthrall themselves with drugs. Ten months earlier, in the spring of 2000, when she had graduated from Evansville's Central High School, the theme of her commencement had been, 'Oh, the Places You'll Go.' So far, however, she had gone nowhere and the year since she had finished high school had been dispiriting. Thanks to her extraordinary intelligence, Michelle had excelled at school.
THORPEIn the mandatory journal she kept for her psychology class, she had written that she had set her sights on going to Indiana University, one of the most prestigious colleges in the state. It had a beautiful tree-lined campus up in Bloomington, and demanding professors who had gotten their degrees from the Ivy League. For a while, it had looked as though she might achieve that dream, for she had earned the right marks. And when she had taken the ACT, she had scored 34 out of 36, which put her in the 98th percentile. Nobody else in her family had ever been to college however, and Michelle did not know how to find the path that led to a fancy campus.
THORPEHer mother lost factory jobs as often as she found them. And her father alternately drove a truck or got himself locked up in jail. And neither of her parents had set aside any money for college."
SHEIRWe're talking with Helen Thorpe, a journalist and an award-winning author. Her latest book is "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War." Do you or someone in your family have experience with the National Guard or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? You can join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet. Our handle is @kojoshow. Or send an email to email@example.com.
SHEIRSo we've touched on it a bit, Helen. But let's talk about how and why each of these women enlisted. And we'll start with Michelle, whom we were just talking about.
THORPEShe had these dreams of a college education. And yet poverty just seemed to dog her family all as she was growing. So what chances, what hopes did she see in the National Guard?
THORPEShe was -- in the spring of 2001, when she enlisted, she had already gotten herself into a commuter college. And she was working full-time as a waitress to pay her tuition bill. And she had taken out a lot of loans. But it was really hard to make ends meet. And she had dreams of going to a better school. So she remembered the military recruiters who had come to her high school. And she went to the National Guard Armory and had a conversation with a recruiter there about enlisting. And he confirmed what she thought she'd heard, which was they would pay her entire tuition bill at Indiana University if she enlisted.
THORPEAnd she was also going to get a sizeable bonus. And so she did decide to enlist in order to get a free ride to college. And she had just voted for Ralph Nader in the preceding presidential election. So she didn't think of herself as somebody who was likely to join the military or whose political beliefs might line up with the typical soldier. But she thought, well, I can do one weekend a month or two weeks in the summer. And I think, as the reader of the book, you know what's coming in the fall of 2001, but she of course has no idea.
SHEIRRight. And then we have Desma, who basically joined the military on a dare.
THORPEThat's the way Desma loves to tell the story, is that a neighbor of hers shows up with her boyfriend, who's a military recruiter, and they dare Desma to join the Army, as they're calling it. Although they really are talking about the Army National Guard. And the truth, I think, is that Desma wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. And she felt badly about dropping out of high school. She had gone on to get her GED. And she is so smart that she graduated from high school via the GED in the top 10 percent of anybody in the State of Indiana in that year.
THORPEBut she had not found meaningful work. She was doing factory jobs. And so when they dared her to join the Army National Guard, what she ended up finding was a way to add structure to her life and the way to add an extra paycheck to her life. So it was for economic reasons, but it was also because she couldn't see another future.
SHEIRAnd with Debbie, the way you put it in the book is so interesting. You write that being in the National Guard gave her what some people found at church.
SHEIRWhat do you mean by that?
THORPEA community and a sense of belonging. So Debbie, who reveres the military and reveres her father who served in the military, has always wanted to belong to some branch of the armed services. And ultimately, it's the National Guard that she joins. But she lives for drill weekend. She finds camaraderie, a sense of community, a sense of belonging. She wants to be a part of that group of people. And she is -- when 9/11 happens, you see Michelle, who's still in training, is distraught. But Debbie's first reaction is, if the guard is called upon, Debbie's thinking, I hope I get to help out. I hope I get to serve. So they have really different responses.
SHEIRWe're talking with Helen Thorpe, author of "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War." Are you a woman who served in the military? Do you think women should serve in combat roles in wartime? Give us a call at 800-433-8850 to join the conversation or find us on Facebook or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Time for a short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Rebecca Sheir sitting in for Kojo.
SHEIRWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Sheir sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Helen Thorpe, author of "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War." Helen will be discussing her book tonight at 7:00 at Politics and Prose. That's at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest in the district. Again, that reading tonight at 7:00. Helen, we just got a tweet from Sprite who says, "A book about women in the military but the book is called "Soldier Girls." Why?" So tell us, what was the background to that title?
THORPEI am delighted that you got that tweet. I would love to explain the title. So while these women were in Afghanistan the following appeared in the newsletter for their support battalion, which was called "The Wrench Daily News. The Army National Guard, which has fallen short of its recruiting goals during the prolonged fighting in Iraq, is trying new marketing beyond the traditional enticement of college tuition aid. New ploys include free hunting and fishing licenses, passes to state parks, more chance to get signing bonuses and pink T-shirts bearing the words 'Soldier Girl'.
THORPESo I found that ironic. And it became the title And I don't mean to imply that I think these women should be called girls but rather I just found it extraordinary that a pink T-shirt bearing the words 'Soldier Girl' was one of the new, you know, enticements that the guard had come up with. And it is a catchy phrase and we all know the term soldier boys from music and it's, you know, part of our culture, that other phrase. And so it I think captured something of the shift that we've seen with more women joining the military.
SHEIRWhat do you think society and the military should be doing for returning soldiers? Should women serve in combat roles in wartime? Please join the conversation. We're at 800-433-8850 or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Let's talk about the political differences that you mentioned before. The run up to the wars really brought out those differences in these few women. What were their different views?
THORPESo Michelle, as somebody who voted for Ralph Nader was watching Democracy Now and read Adbusters, was really at odds in her National Guard unit. She opposed both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Desma Brooks, by comparison, had voted for Bush in 2000. And she supported the war in Afghanistan as what she thought of as an appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks.
THORPEBut she had great doubts about the war in Iraq. She was worried about the military fighting two wars at once, whether they would have the troop levels, what the impact would be on individuals who were serving in the military. Debbie never votes. She doesn't think politicians are people that she wants to support and she doesn't like the way politics are covered by the media. So she just steers clear of that whole arena of life.
THORPEAnd she wholeheartedly supported both wars. And she wasn't sure about Iraq but after Colin Powell spoke persuasively about getting into the war in Iraq than she supported it because he was a personal hero of hers. So that's the span of beliefs amongst the three women. And at home, I think, those differences might have kept them from becoming close friends. But after they deployed together to Afghanistan, those differences didn't matter anymore.
SHEIRWell, how was it they came to connect with one another?
THORPESo Michelle finds herself sharing a tent with Desma. And they are the two troublemakers in their tent. They're the two who are for various reasons acting out. Michelle doesn't want to be there because she doesn't believe in the conflict that she's being asked to serve in. Desma doesn't want to be there because she's being asked to leave her three children for an entire year. So they get in trouble together. Desma's doing things like ordering 50 pink plastic flamingos, and arranging them around the outside of her very drab green tent. And Michelle finds this sight uplifting, you know, on this sort of monochromatic military base and things like that.
THORPEThen during the daytime Michelle is working alongside Debbie. They're both weapons mechanics and they're both on the armament team. And their team is doing unusual work. Normally an armament team would be fixing weapons that American soldiers were carrying. But because they're in Afghanistan, they actually end up working on Soviet weaponry. So they're fixing broken AK47s that have been collected by the United Nations and are being refurbished and given to the Afghan national army. So as their support battalion is helping Afghan national army soldiers train for war, they, the armament team are helping arm those soldiers.
SHEIRAnd then in terms of them hooking up with Debbie, how'd that happen?
THORPESo Michelle and Debbie are on the armament team together...
THORPE...where Michelle and Desma are sharing a tent. Both Debbie and Desma's names begin with D so it might sound like I say the same thing. I think I got it right saying that Michelle and Desma are living together and Michelle and Debbie are working together.
SHEIRRight. And then Debbie takes on kind of a motherly role for both of them.
THORPEShe does. She does. So Debbie plays a motherly role with Michelle at work. They're reporting to an ex-marine who is leading the armament team. And he's -- you see him kind of picking on Michelle who he thinks is not a good soldier and has a bad attitude. And Debbie's trying to help this young woman withstand this sort of withering criticism from her superior.
THORPEAnd then Debbie starts to mother everybody in Michelle's tent, including Desma. And Debbie, I should mention, is a beautician. So she does like waxing and electrolyses in a beauty salon at home when she's not wearing a uniform everyday overseas. So she starts to offer beauty services to all of the young women in Michelle and Desma's tent. So she's cutting their hair and waxing their legs to help them feel more feminine as they are feeling not very feminine in this very male environment wearing a male-looking uniform.
SHEIRWe got an email from Susan in Alexandria asking about Desma. "I'm curious as to why the National Guard would take a single mother and then deploy her abroad. Were they that hard up even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?"
THORPEMichelle is, herself, asking questions like that throughout the entirety of the book. And she's pointing out that she's serving with Desma, a single mother, and Debbie who becomes a grandmother during that Afghanistan deployment. So it is a great question to ask. You know, during Vietnam if somebody had an economic dependence, they did not get -- I mean, if you had small children you didn't go. But during these conflicts people with small children did get sent overseas. And when it's a single parent, obviously it's an incredibly difficult situation for that family.
THORPESo I should make clear that when Desma joined the military initially, she did not say that she had one child, which she had at the time because she knew that they wouldn't take her if she was a single parent. Then she got married. And so by the time basic training started, she was married and no longer a single parent. She had two more children and then she got divorced. So she was divorced and was again a single parent when the deployments came along.
THORPEAnd she had to give custody of her children over to other people in order to go on the deployment, which she chose to do because every single parent that she knew that she was friends with was also doing the same and was also choosing to stay with their unit and deploy with the people that they had trained with. So she could've pled hardship and said that she couldn't find a situation for her children but in Desma's words, as she explain it in the book, then she would've been quote unquote "a dirt bag." That's how she would've viewed if she had chosen to stay home.
SHEIRHow did she cope with juggling those two duties? On one hand you're a soldier and on the other hand you're a mom. What was her interaction like with her kids back home?
THORPEYeah, she was constantly trying to find a quiet corner of the post to make a phone call home from a cell phone that she bought that would, you know, allow her to make these overseas phone calls. It would be terribly upsetting to her if she found the children when they were hungry or tired and they would burst into tears. And then she would feel that maybe she was making their lives worse by reminding them that she was gone by calling.
THORPEShe struggled to sort of, you know, order gifts for them online if it was Christmastime or if it was one of their birthdays. She tried never to call at the same time or the same day of the week so that she didn't want them to be in the position of waiting for her call at a certain hour. And then if she didn't call, starting to worry.
THORPEDuring her second deployment she actually became so sensitive to the idea of leaving her children a second time that she found she couldn't really bear to look at their photographs unexpectedly. So she wouldn't have their photographs say, like, up on her wall or in her wallet. She kept them inside her wall locker so that she's always know that she was going to see them. And she wouldn't see their faces unexpectedly because it made her so upset. So it was incredibly hard for her as a mother.
SHEIRAnd also during one of the deployments, two of her three children got in a bit of trouble. And it seemed as if she was almost blaming herself. If I had been there, maybe this wouldn't have happened.
THORPEYeah, her -- so the book covers a 12-year span and it's after the second deployment. During the second deployment and after the second deployment that her children really, really start to struggle very visibly in more dramatic ways, such as one of her daughters fails two different years of school, fourth grade and eighth grade she fails and has to repeat.
THORPEAnd by the end of the book -- this is a little bit of a spoiler so plug your ears if you want to read it and be surprised -- Desma's son who is just sort of the love of her life and the child that, you know, he's her first-born and he's very special to her, he winds up committing burglary and serving a 20-year sentence in jail. And she is constantly asking herself, if she had not done these deployments would thing have turned out differently for him, for both of her children who were struggling.
SHEIRI mean, you're sharing all these personal details with us about these women, and they obviously shared them with you. How difficult was it to get them to open up?
THORPEI think that Michelle, as somebody who opposed both of the wars and yet served in Afghanistan, she was very hungry for a chance to tell her story. She had found the progressive veterans community. And she didn't feel that the story of a progressive veteran like herself was being told. And she was hungry to talk. Debbie was really, really different. I mean, she was cautious. And it was actually only after I'd known her for a few years that she casually mentioned to me that she had kept six diaries and did I want to see those, which I of course said, yeah, I would love to.
THORPEDesma ended up actually sharing the therapy notes that are contained in her VA file and also some tape recordings that she and her therapist made for therapy purposes because she was struggling to overcome post traumatic stress disorder after she was driving a truck that hit an IED. And, you know, her five years that she spent in therapy trying to put that incident behind her, her experiences behind her were so hard she, I think, was motivated by wanting other veterans to know they're not alone if they're struggling with PTSD. So I didn't -- they didn't open up right away about all of these things. It was -- we spent four years in conversation about it and it was overtime.
SHEIRLet's turn to the phones now. We have Joshua. Joshua's calling from Leesburg. Joshua, go ahead, please. You're on the air.
JOSHUAGood afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it very much. My question -- first of all, thank you for your book. I'm looking forward to reading it. I think that this is a terrific topic. I -- more years ago than I care to admit I enlisted in the Army and I met a woman whom I married. She, too, was in the military at the time. And we divorced but my ex-wife -- my now ex-wife who was then the single mother of three children had to make considerable sacrifices in order to be able to enlist, ultimately ceding guardianship and custody of her children during training exercises.
JOSHUAShe went on to stay in the Army and Reserves and retired just this past year. But I remember being young at that point and having the opportunity to speak with both people that I was enlisted with and friends of hers who were also enlisted. So I was able to gain a lot of familiarity with some of the challenges that women in the military faced in the wake of the Gulf War back in the early '90s.
JOSHUAAnd ultimately I'm almost surprised that there is so much of a debate that continues today about women in combat roles and in combat zones. And I say this with all due respect for my ex-wife, but I would've gone into battle with her before I would've gone into battle with half of the guys that I enlisted with. So my question ultimately is, from a social perspective what -- have you really seen that much of a backlash from women or from civilians who look at women in combat roles based on your book, who say women just have no place in combat zones period?
THORPEI think what I love about you calling in is that you speak from the perspective of knowing the military from the inside. And we have such a divide in our society between those people who are familiar with the military from personal experience and then the rest of us, like myself, who are civilians. And I think civilians really don't understand the years of history that women already have in the military and maybe were caught by surprise to find women serving in some of the roles they've served in over the last decade.
THORPEI know I was surprised when I learned that Desma was transferred into an all-male infantry regiment. I didn't know that things like that were happening during the war in Iraq. That infantry regiment was going to be deployed not in an infantry role. They were going to be deployed in a support capacity. They were a National Guard unit of infantry soldiers. And so she was allowed to temporarily join this otherwise all-male unit along with a handful of other women.
THORPEAnd for me it's just what's fascinating as a civilian to understand, you know, that women were being put in that position of serving alongside so many men in a unit that was used to being male and just the kinds of experiences that Desma had. You know, she was shunned by some of the infantry soldiers. They wouldn't speak to her. They wouldn't sit with her at lunch.
THORPESo even today, you know, women are -- in the military are still struggling with some of those experiences. Sorry, go ahead.
JOSHUAYeah, I appreciate that very much. I think that's an unfortunate reality that women continue to face those kinds of issues in serving their country. I think that overtime I'd like to believe that that will pass. When I was in and when my ex-wife was in the service, she was not -- Bill Clinton had just gotten elected. And one of the big debates that he brought to the forefront was whether or not women should serve in combat roles.
JOSHUAAnd I went to -- I went on to do ROTC in college after I got out of the service, and my mentor in my ROTC program was a woman who was in (unintelligible) Navy. And she wanted to fly fighter planes. And that was -- she was the only one in our class who was going to do that. And she went on to do exactly that, fly then F14s.
JOSHUAI'd like to see that change. I wish that we, as a society, were a lot more accepting of women in those roles because they -- like a lot of people there are leaders and then there are people who are not leaders of that capacity, regardless of their gender.
SHEIRAnd as somebody who has served in the military and whose ex-wife has served in the military, how do you feel about the parents of young children being deployed during war? What do you think about that subject?
THORPEWell, I remember that the big issue when she and I made the decision to regain custody of her children, the big issue was ultimately one of us is going to have to get out, that one of us was going to have to stay in and if we did that the possibility of deployment ultimately met that there had to be a parent at home. (unintelligible)…
THORPEYeah, and so which one of you got out?
JOSHUAOh, yeah, I did. And then they -- and simply because I wanted to go back to school. But for the people in your book, for the three women in your book who continued on as parents, that's, you know, then those kind of sacrifices are incredibly difficult. I can only assume that they had to cede custody to their parents or to the fathers or what have you.
THORPEThey did. Yes, they did.
JOSHUAAnd so in that regard I, you know, the children ultimately have to be the primary responsibility and primary concern where making that sort of decision is in my mind.
SHEIRWell, thank you for your call, Joshua. We should note that combat jobs -- after you wrote the book -- they are now open to women. That's correct, Helen?
THORPEThe announcement has been made and they're in the midst of transitioning into that reality, yeah.
SHEIRAnd the deadline for integrating women fully into the forces is just a few years away, 2016?
THORPEI think it is 2016.
SHEIRSo one of the issues that does -- we hear about a lot with women being in the armed forces is sexual assaults in the military. What did you learn about that issue as you were interviewing these women for your book?
THORPESo the description that Michelle and Desma give of being relatively young in both their cases and being overseas on a military post is one of being -- entering an atmosphere where there's constant attention from all the men all around them. And in the book I think you start to understand the atmosphere in which these assaults were taking place. Neither of them was assaulted during their deployments, though Desma was assaulted by a military recruiter when she first joined, according to Desma.
THORPEMichelle had what was an illegal and inappropriate relationship with a drill instructor, with a drill sergeant who was one of her instructors, while she was in training. So they both have experience of either assault or an inappropriate relationship while serving in the military, although not while they were deployed. But all around them assaults were happening in both theaters. And you see -- when Desma's in Iraq she's told that she needs to carry a knife any time she goes to the bathroom or the showers, because she should never go by herself.
THORPEAnd you see Debbie, who serving elsewhere in Iraq, encounter a woman in a bathroom who warns her, "Don't come here late at night. I was assaulted here." So it's very present in the book, all around them.
SHEIRWe're speaking with Helen Thorpe, a journalist and an award-winning author. Her latest book is "Soldier Girls." And she'll be discussing that book tonight at 7:00 o'clock at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, here in the District. Time to take a break, but when we get back join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Are you a woman who's served in the military? Do you know someone how has? What was that experience like? And do you think women should serve in combat roles in war time? You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo.
SHEIRWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Helen Thorpe about "Soldier Girls: The Battle of Three Women at Home and at War." That's her new book, which she'll be discussing tonight at 7:00, at Politics and Prose, on 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, in D.C. If you'd like to join the conversation send us a tweet, @kojoshow is our handle. Our phone number is 800-433-8850.
SHEIRI want to talk a little more about Desma's job. I mean, navigating for convoys of supply trucks through Iraq when she joined up, that was nothing that she had ever imagined she'd be doing.
SHEIRWhat was job like and can you read a little bit about it from the book?
THORPEI would love to. That's correct. When Desma joined up she became an automated logistics specialist. So she had a desk job during her first deployment. That's what she had trained to do. And her desk job was tracking the maintenance on vehicles that were being used by other soldiers who were leaving the post. So she stayed on post the entire time she was in Afghanistan. Iraq was really different. She got -- so first she was transferred into an infantry regiment. It was so uncomfortable she requested another transfer and she was transferred into a field artillery regiment.
THORPEThey were doing convoy security. And her job was to drive in the -- a gun truck at the front of the supply convoy. And she was either in the second or the third vehicle. The third vehicle was always doing navigation. And this section here is when she's in that third vehicle position in her truck. It's an armored security vehicle. "It was all right to drive in daylight up in northern Iraq, but after Mosul it was better to drive in the dark.
THORPE"It took them about 10 hours to get from Zakho down to Al Qayyarah. They could have gone faster, but they spent the second half of the trip nosing along at 30 miles per hour, looking for stuff that might blow up. The following day another platoon from the same regiment escorted the convoy from Al Qayyarah down to Tikrit. After Tikrit, soldiers who were stationed at Balad took over the job of getting the goods where they were going.
THORPE"It was mind-numbing to drive for 10 or 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, while scouring the shoulders for a stray wire or the wrong sort of trash. But Desma enjoyed leaving the post and the work made her feel more like a real soldier than anything else she had done in her life. Nobody ever said what was inside the trucks. Food, mail, ammo, weapons, fuel, it could be anything required by the military. Often, after they ran a mission, they would suddenly find fresh milk again in the chow hall or chips on the shelves at PX.
THORPE"Once, when they were in the middle of a run, the entire convoy took a bumpy detour. A bomb had blown apart a stretch of highway, and the convoy jounced along some decrepit side roads before turning back onto the main road again, and a civilian driver behind her called for the convoy to halt so he could tend to his cargo. The convoy commander said over the radio that he didn't want to stop.
THORPE"The driver said he needed to re-secure his load now or they were going to have a problem because he was carrying Hellfire missiles. We were like, 'Holy crap,' Desma said later. We had no clue there were Hellfires on that truck."
SHEIRWell, talk about a holy-crap moment, when her armored vehicle hits an IED. What happens to her in that incident?
THORPESo she actually can't even make sense of the moment. And as a reader looking over her shoulder you just know that she suddenly can't see anything. She's hearing a high-pitched squealing sound. She smells smoke. She tastes dirt in her mouth. And it -- her awareness that she has hit a bomb slowly comes to her as she realizes her helmet is covering her eyes and when she takes it off she can see again. And they stumble out of this destroyed vehicle, and the three people in the truck emerge with really severe concussions, including Desma.
THORPEIt'll be months before she's actually diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, but she does have a mild case of traumatic brain injury because the blast was so powerful that her skull, you know, her brain has sort of sheered inside of her skull. So she has an internal brain injury that's invisible and hard to diagnose. She consequently has a kind of a migraine-sized headache, which she has continuously still today.
THORPEAnd she has to then take medication to suppress the headache, which she finds she can do successfully, but the medication itself starts causing short-term memory loss. She has a very hard time remembering anything. So she's struggling from that moment on.
SHEIRShe has major issues driving, which is no doubt…
SHEIR…part of the PTSD. Can you read from page 361, when -- after she gets back, she's driving her car…
THORPESo she's back in Indiana, but she's still behaving -- reacting to things as if she's in a war zone. "Driving freaked her out. The roads were wide open and she felt frighteningly unprotected. Trusting civilians barreled along without scanning the roadsides and hers was the only moving dot on the GPS. She missed the rest of her convoy. Desma was driving her Pacifica through Bedford, Ind., with a marked police car on her tail, when she spotted several small black plastic bags of trash in the middle of the road.
THORPE"She locked the brakes and swerved. The cop almost rear-ended her. Desma could not see properly, could not breathe, could not think. The cop pulled up behind her, lights flashing. 'I'm so sorry,' Desma told the officer. 'I didn't mean to freak out, but you don't understand.' 'Well, help me understand,' he said. 'I just got back,' Desma said. 'I've been home all of a few weeks. And somebody's put all this trash in the road.' 'Just got back from where?' 'Iraq.' The cop said they should get out of the road and talk.
THORPE"They both pulled into the parking lot in front of a pizza place. Desma sat on the curb and the cop sat down beside her. He asked her what had happened. She had hit a roadside bomb, Desma said. 'It had just looked like a box. Now there were bags of trash in the road. People should pick up their stuff.' Her hands were still shaking. The police officer told her she needed to get less panicky or maybe she should not drive."
SHEIRAnd Desma's not the only one who comes home changed. I mean, she's, I think, the most extreme, in terms of diagnoses. But I was intrigued, for example, by each woman's reaction to coming back and being in a big retail store. Each one of them kind of has a panic attack, a meltdown. Can you talk about that?
THORPEYes. So for Michelle it's the moment when she's getting ready to start her college career again, but this time at Indiana University. So for her it's actually the moment when her dream is coming true. Although, there's been this interruption of a deployment in Afghanistan that she hadn't counted on. And she is in a Target shopping for the start of her college school year. And she's standing in the toilet paper aisle. And there's like 25 different kinds of toilet paper. And her boyfriend leaves her alone and walks away.
THORPEThis is actually, I should say, her ex-boyfriend. He had been her boyfriend at the beginning of the deployment, but their relationship doesn't last through the deployment. Yet, now he's helping her anyway, get herself what she needs to go to school. And as soon as he leaves her alone she just finds herself awash in panic. And she starts thinking why are there so many different kinds of consumer goods. She hasn't seen things like this for a full year. You know, she's been on a military post where the only kind of toilet paper is this pink crepe toilet paper from China.
THORPEAnd, you know, there's not a huge selection at the PX to pick from. She hasn't been making these kinds of choices. And it's an over-stimulating environment. And it's kind of one of those moments where she's very directly confronted by American consumer society. And she just can't handle it. And I think also, it's a moment when she's been in danger in a war zone.
THORPEYou know, she's had to put on body armor when the alarms sound, indicating there's an RPG coming in. And it's kind of safe for her now to have this sort of breakdown moment where she lets go. I think that's part of what's happening.
SHEIRLet's turn to the phones now. We have Linda, calling from Arlington, Va. Linda, your turn.
LINDAHi. Thank you very much. I am a former Marine Corps officer. My husband and I met while we were student teaching. And it was 1969 at -- in the thrust of the Vietnam War. We were both Vietnam protestors, but, unfortunately, he received his draft notice about two or three weeks before graduating. And didn't have a deferment. We were penniless. Anyway, to make a long story short, we were both standing in front of the Marine Corps Selection Officer and -- because we had decided, you know, he was going to join the Marine Corps because that was only four years.
LINDAIf he had joined the Navy that was five years. And the OSO, as the selection officer was called, said, "You know, if you can get your wife to join, I will assure that the Marine Corps will not separate married officers," because they're certainly no combat roles -- remember, this was 1969 -- for women. So we did, under my parents protest. I can still hear them now.
LINDABut anyway, he served as a supply officer at Camp Lejeune and I was a dispersing officer at the Marine Corps air station across the river at New River. And it was, you know, during my little -- it was all separate officer candidate school, it was separate at the basic school.
THORPEDo you mean men and women were separated?
LINDAAbsolutely. There was a separate, like I said, officer candidate school. We were both at Quantico, but I was separated in my own little all-women barracks and he was separated in his all-men barracks. I had a very small class of women officers. We had only 25. And, of course, he was in a class of 300 and 400. But -- and then when we both graduated from OCS as second lieutenants, then we went to separate basic schools still at Quantico.
LINDAAnd I remember the only concession that the Marine Corps made, since we were the only married Marine Corps team who had signed up at the exact nanosecond, it was you can live off base. And so, what, you know, he was -- he would roll in at night at 2:00 and 3:00 o'clock in the morning covered with sweat and mud and be crying. And I would, of course, made him something to eat. It was just like this is so awful because basically the basic school for women -- I think we went out to the rifle range once and shot .22 caliber hand guns.
LINDASo, basically, it was pluck your mustache or your eyebrows. This is how you smoke. I mean, it was absolutely silly. And I look at what's happening now and if, you know, if women want to serve in combat, go ahead. But I think that there should be no concessions whatsoever. Everyone should have the very same physical fitness requirements. You know, combat…
THORPEAnd do you think men and women should be trained separately or do you think they should be trained together?
LINDAI think now women should be trained -- it should be co-ed. Absolutely.
THORPEYeah, one of the women that I was speaking with made the point -- so when, you know, Desma and Michelle and Debbie were all in co-ed training programs, but when Desma was transferred into the infantry regiment, part of the reason she had such a hard time was those men had never trained with women. Many infantry soldiers train in all-male training settings. So…
SHEIRWell, that is all the time we have for today. We've been talking with Helen Thorpe, a journalist and award-winning author of "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War." She'll be talking tonight at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, in D.C. Helen, thank you so much for joining us today.
THORPEPleasure. Thank you for having me.
SHEIRI'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo, on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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