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The Pentagon officially lifted its ban on women in combat in 2013. That means that Desma Brooks, one of the soldiers in Helen Thorpe's "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War" (2014), wasn't supposed to be at risk in her 2010 deployment to Iraq. She had a commanding officer that used his distaste for women as a reason not to give Ms. Brooks specialized training she needed to drive trucks in a combat zone. What that misogynist didn't even consider was that trucks convoy; other soldiers are on board, one navigating and another literally 'riding shotgun'; and that truck might be carrying weapons the battalion needs for its next fight. Ms. Brooks and her crew were badly injured when and IED (Improvised Explosive Device) went off next to the ASV (Armored Service Vehicle) she was driving. If that particular officer hasn't resigned his commission in the National Guard, he needs to be courtmartialed before he does any more damage.
"Soldier Girl" follows three women in Indiana's National Guard: Ms. Brooks, a mother of 3 who enlisted in 1996; Debbie Helton Deckard, a mother of 1 who enlisted in the mid-1990's at the age of 35; and Michelle Fischer, the pseudonym of an unfocused college student who joined to pay for college - just before 9/11. Thorpe kept her promise to her subjects and only mentioned that one soldier asked not to have her real name used, but Ms. Fischer is the only one that can't be found in a quick search of Google images. All three women ended up in the Guard as part of what Ms. Fischer referred to, after finishing a degree at a prestigious university that her military service paid for, as an "economic draft".
Ms. Brooks, Ms. Fischer, and to some extent, Ms. Deckard, served because they needed the money. It's a much more insidious draft than the one that ended in 1973: it only takes the poor. I ended up in that particular draft myself. I enlisted in 1982, the year I graduated from high school, in the middle of a recession that made the prospect of paying for college bleak. Thorpe's description of entering the service; basic training; and advanced individual training (AIT) is spot on. I never served in the National Guard - I was on active duty in the Army - but Thorpe's descriptions of weekend drills, annual training and the Armory itself match what I saw when Guard members trained with us.
"Soldier Girl" is accurate about another facet of serving as a woman: the constant sexual harassment that sometimes spills over into actual violence. Thorpe mentions a term that the Department of Veterans Affairs has just started to use: Military Sexual Trauma (MST). It's a catch-all term for what Ms. Brooks and Ms. Fisher faced during their first deployment in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The leers and catcalls. The suggestive jokes. Nominally 'giving' sex for plum assignments and favorable living quarters - although with fraternization, what's actually happening is a subordinate is being rewarded for services rendered and keeping her mouth shut.
Ms. Deckard, who became a grandmother during her deployment to Afghanistan, did not have the same level of unremitting harassment as the other two soldiers and attributes that to her age - but she wouldn't walk unescorted in various areas of the FOBs (Forward Operating Base) she was assigned to. The MST other women faced bothered Ms. Deckard more than it did the women themselves. When you've been around long enough and the military isn't your first real job, you recognize the problem more readily; you know what's happening is wrong; and you wonder why it's still happening. I was dismayed that MST seems to have gotten worse since I served. I wasn't assigned to a tactical unit like these women were, though. Perhaps it was always that bad and I just didn't know.
I listened to David J. Morris' "The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (2015) a few weeks before "Soldier Girl." Together, they make a good introduction to real soldiering and the real problems veterans have. Donna Postel was a good choice for narrator.
The title of the review is from a speech given by President Barrack Obama in 2013, announcing that combat jobs would be opened to women.
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