By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Helen Thorpe
Narration by: Donna Postel
Helen Thrope’s “Soldier Girls” positively and negatively bends the equality curve for women in the military. Like many income-challenged’ Americans, past and present, three people find a way to supplement unlivable wages by taking second or third jobs. Thorpe writes a memoir of the lives of three women that choose to join the National Guard. Two join for income and educational benefit; the third joins for income and adventure; each joins before 9/11/01.
These three women’s reasons for joining the Guard are determined by gender-neutral interests. Military service offers money, education, and opportunity. Two of the three women have minimum wage jobs with the wish, but not the money, to go to college; the third sees an opportunity that might change the power and prestige of her life. These are motivations for most Americans, whether male or female.
One woman is 19, another is a single mother with two children, and the third is a 34-year-old divorcee with a teenage daughter. Thorpe assures reader/listeners that “Soldier Girls” is about three real people (though the name of one, Michele Fischer, is fictionalized at her request). Reader/listeners will draw different conclusions about these three women. Some will conclude women should not serve in front line areas of military combat; others will see how women make a valuable contribution to in-country military operations.
At the time these women join the Guard, there seems little likelihood that they will have to serve more than as a reserve force for the Army. However, after 9/11, full-time assignments became common for the National Guard. For Michele Fischer and Desma Brooks, 9/11 changes everything. For Debbie Helton, 9/11 looks like an opportunity of a lifetime.
Before 9/11, Fischer and Brooks expect to finish college with a six-year recurring obligation to the Guard for weekend warrior drills. Helton expects to supplement her income while learning more about the power and prestige of being part of something greater than oneself. After 9/11, Fischer and Brooks realize college is a future, if ever, possibility. In contrast, Helton is thrilled at the idea of serving full-time in the Guard.
None of these reactions are gender related. Every person that joins the military in some capacity loses a degree of control over their lives. The tricky part of Thorpe’s memoir of these three women is in the gender implications of their experience as full-time soldiers.
After their first deployment for one year in Afghanistan, the three women return to civilian life. They still have weekend obligations to the Guard, but each is challenged by a return to American normalcy. Full time military experience exposes the three women to a regimented life where decisions for food and shelter are made by others. While in Afghanistan, each experiences camaraderie and shared purpose that galvanize group responsibility but ironically absolve many individuals of personal guilt for immoral behavior. That personal absolution is gender neutral because both men and women park morality when isolated from familiar cultural surroundings.
As a former military veteran, I find Thorpe shows the experience of Fischer, Brooks, and Helton is the same as for most men who return from an out-of-country assignment in the military. When one first returns to civilian life, decisions that were once made for you return to personal responsibilities. It is disorienting. Some return to the military because added life responsibility is overwhelming; others, after a period of time, re-adjust to civilian life. A personal moral compass, whether male or female, reestablishes itself when a veteran returns to familiar surroundings.
Michele Fischer completes her Guard obligation and earns a college degree. Helton and Brooks are called back to duty when American invades Iraq. Their return to duty clearly exposes a negative bend in the equality curve for women in the military. Ironically, it is restricted duty; based on being women rather than men. Brooks’ story exposes unequal treatment by one of her troop assignments because of gender. She is compelled to ask for re-assignment to escape disrespectful treatment.
Though Helton and Brooks are exposed to the risk of death, they are not considered combat soldiers. Their duty assignments are classified as non-combat positions but in a combat zone. One is desk bound while the other drives military vehicles. Driving military vehicles is unquestionably a dangerous occupation in an IED war. The desk bound duty is mind-numbing for Helton; partly because her gender isolates her from male counterparts. There are no other women in her section.
Unquestionably, Fischer’s, Brooks’, and Helton’s lives are changed by their stints in the military but not in a way that is substantively different from the change that occurs in men. Inhibitions that exist in men or women before joining the military are problematically the same; i.e. promiscuity, infidelity, addiction, discrimination, and all the sins of life are present in both civilian and military life.
Thorpe’s story bends the curve of gender equality closer with an awareness of the psychic strain that accompanies all Americans that serve in the military and return to civilian life. Children that are left at home are deeply affected by absent parents, whether it is a mother or a father. Historically, military service has been a leveler of unequal treatment; bending the curve toward equality for all. On the other hand, military service tears the fabric of family responsibility apart.