Thorpe spent four years working on her new book -- her second, following "Just Like Us," also a nonfiction chronicle of the lives of women, albeit quite different ones.
The author specializes in meticulous research into the inner lives of her characters and the environments into which they are plunged.
About the new book, "Soldier Girls," The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani wrote this week, "Ms. Thorpe’s sharply drawn portraits are novelistic in their emotional detail and candor, underscoring the very different philosophical and political outlooks held by these three women before they went off to war, and the transformative effect (positive and negative) that their service would have on their daily lives, their sense of self and their relationships back home."
Thorpe spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Tattered Cover on Colfax about why these three vastly different women -- Michelle Fischer, Debbie Helton (Deckard) and Desma Brooks -- joined the National Guard only to find themselves, surprisingly, at war. (Michelle Fischer is a pseudonym; the other names are real.)
Thorpe discussed her characters’ willingness to reveal not just the facts of their lives but their doubts; some of their most dubious choices; their complex relationships with their fellow soldiers; and finally their conflicted relationships with their families and friends back home, who usually could not understand nor sympathize with what these female soldiers experienced overseas.
Why Thorpe chose the three women she profiles in "Soldier Girls:"
“These women had really strong personalities and really strong voices, and they were great at articulating their experiences… They’re not only divided by great differences in terms of their age, but also their political beliefs and the ways that they viewed their own military service and their opinions about the two wars.”
Why the women were so candid, sharing not only their stories but their medical records, diaries and therapy notes with Thorpe:
“I wasn’t in a hurry. Some of those things were given to me only after two or three years of conversation… Desma [Brooks] judges people right away. She sizes you up, and you’re either going to be family, or she doesn’t really want to spend time with you. And the second time I met her, Desma said, ‘This is my military record, my VA file with all my records, and here’s all my therapy notes. Your story is right here.’”
On their working lives in Afghanistan, fixing weaponry:
“An enterprising superior came up with a plan for them to fix weapons that were going to be given to Afghan soldiers. It’s very unusual for American soldiers to fix Soviet weaponry, but that’s what they were doing in Afghanistan. And they worked on 20,000 AK-47s over the course of the year. This was documented meticulously by the leader of the armament team.”
On Michelle’s views about war:
“Michelle is sitting there as she’s fixing broken AK-47s, thinking ‘guns change hands.’ And these guns last for a long time. Some of these are 10 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old. ‘How long is this gun that I’m fixing going to be around? Who’s going to use it immediately? Who’s going to use it after that? Can an AK-47 ever be used for good purposes?’ She’s asking all these questions while she’s working, which is hard for her. She was in a state of conflict all throughout her deployment.”
On being one of a small number of women at war:
“For Michelle, as the youngest of the three, this meant all day long, every day, intense attention from a whole lot of guys that she didn’t necessarily want attention from… By the point they go to Iraq in 2008 it’s becoming known that assaults on women on military posts are a huge issue and a huge problem, and Desma is specifically told she should never go to the bathroom without a knife, and that’s specifically so that she can defend herself from her colleagues should they attack her.”
On the effect of deployments on their lives back home:
“Every time they went on a deployment or came back from a deployment, they often went through a fracturing in their relationships. Sometimes their relationships at home couldn’t be sustained through a year-long deployment, and then they might have a deployment relationship that couldn’t be sustained through the transition back home. So they were living through a decade of broken relationships.”
Thorpe cites several books that gave her insight into her own project. Among them: "The Forever War" by Dexter Filkins; "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers; "Love My Rifle More than You" by Kayla Williams; and "No Man's War" by Angie Ricketts.
Read An Excerpt from "Soldier Girls:"
MICHELLE FISCHER HAD not yet reached twenty but she already knew how to find the National Guard Armory, a low-slung, modern-looking building made of red bricks with a green metal roof. It commanded a prominent seat beside the Lloyd Expressway, the main east–west thoroughfare that split the heart of Evansville, Indiana. People used the building as a landmark when they gave directions—other places along the Lloyd Expressway could be described as east of the armory or west of the armory. The recruiters who worked there had established many ways of meeting young people, and Michelle had swayed to pop music inside the vast blue gymnasium there at both her junior and her senior prom. She did not have the nerve to return and talk to the recruiters on her own, however, which was why she had badgered her boyfriend of six months into accompanying her. It was March 2001, and Michelle was eighteen years old. From her vantage point, the Indiana Army National Guard looked like the answer to a dilemma, which was that she found her circumstances dreary.
Michelle had thrust through a childhood full of neglect, making her both headstrong and vulnerable, and it was no accident that she had dreamed up the idea to enlist but required Noah Jarvis’s steadying company to execute it. That was Michelle—audacious, needy, a little bit self-absorbed. Michelle was quite certain she knew what the Guard would ask of them in return: one weekend a month, two weeks every summer. Maybe they would also be asked to hem a swollen river with sandbags, or gather up the pieces of a town shattered by a tornado. She thought that was a price she might be willing to pay, in exchange for the prospect of leaving home.
Michelle did not look like a soldier. On the short side, buxom, a face framed by masses of long, curly, blond hair, with big brown eyes and a button nose, she brimmed with cherubic innocence, which made her mischievousness a constant surprise. She looked angelic but through her sluiced a prodigious appetite for naughty things such as boys and pot and punk rock music. Life rendered itself to her in contradictory ways, brackish and clear, bitter and honeyed; she had formed the habit of looking for what was funny in sad moments, and she had a laugh like a bell, loud and clear and ringing.
Michelle had spent her entire childhood in southern Indiana, mostly in and around Evansville, an industrial city tucked into a bend in the Ohio River. The rest of the Midwest had forgotten about Evansville so long ago it might as well have been southern, and the pace of life was slow. Vast barges heaped with black coal sank low onto the river, crawling past casino boats where people went to hazard their earnings. Michelle’s father lived on the opposite shore, buried deep in the woods of Kentucky, in an air-conditioned trailer where he hoarded mementos and told unlikely stories. 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. In the mandatory journal that 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. Her 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.
In the fall of 2000, Michelle had enrolled instead at the University of Southern Indiana, a commuter college that squatted beside another part of the Lloyd Expressway, to the west of the armory. She had borrowed the maximum possible amount in student loans, as she was paying her entire tuition bill by herself. As she began her college career, Michelle was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, working as a waitress at a steakhouse called the Golden Corral, and driving back and forth to classes in the Tank. That’s what she named her 1994 silver Ford Tempo. It had been a gift from her father. A burly wreck of a man, he loved Michelle dearly, but he had never stuck with any of his four wives, nor had he safeguarded the economic well-being of his children. He had bought the car used for $2,000, and had given it to Michelle in lieu of paying the $40,000 in child support that he owed to her mother. Michelle’s mother eked out a thin existence with occasional welfare checks, irregular jobs, regular packs of Marlboro Lights 100s, and a steady supply of Double Cola. After he bought the car for Michelle, her father had made her mother sign a letter saying she wouldn’t sue him for the money that he owed, and then he had handed Michelle the keys. She liked to joke that she drove a $40,000 beater. The joke encapsulated everything about her childhood—what she had been given, what her parents had failed to provide, and the spark that let her laugh about it all, especially the parts that were not really funny.
Michelle had spent the winter of 2000 in the Tank, driving to and from her classes, her job at the chain restaurant, college parties, and the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her mom. Michelle smoked too much pot, went to too many keg parties, started dropping acid. In the spring of 2001, she learned that her standing in the University of Southern Indiana honors program had been thrown into jeopardy because she had been failing to show up for an algebra class that was held at nine o’clock in the morning. Somehow, she had taken a wrong turn. She knew where this road led, because she had watched various older siblings take it: you started off drinking too much and then you wound up battling a lifetime of addiction. Michelle wanted to leave all this behind. She wanted to stride across a pretty campus, she wanted to be assigned a room in a dormitory, and she wanted to take classes that were challenging. Yet she could not calculate out how to pay for her aspirations until she remembered the military recruiters who had visited the economics class she had taken during her senior year at Central High. They had handed out fake dog tags and spoken of true heroism. One recruiter had said the National Guard would send students to any college in the state, free of charge. With more than sixty armories, Indiana had one of the most robust National Guards in the country, and many of Michelle’s fellow students had accepted the offer, which struck them as low risk. The country had been at peace for more than a decade, and the only serious conflict that had occurred in their lifetimes was the Persian Gulf War, which had been wrapped up in months. Plus, everybody in southern Indiana knew that the Guard did not go to war—if you wanted to see combat, you joined the regular army.
Michelle had not pursued the matter because she did not see herself as the military type. She thought of herself as a music-loving, pot-smoking, left-leaning hippie—not a soldier. By the spring of 2001, however, after almost a full school year of driving the Tank back and forth to the bleak campus of her commuter college, she found herself recalling the pitch made by the recruiters. She told her boyfriend Noah that she was thinking about signing up for the Guard and hinted that he should enlist, too. Noah was older than Michelle, albeit more adrift. After dropping out of college, he had slouched through a series of dead-end jobs—for a while he had driven an ice cream truck, and at another point he had sold doughnuts. Often he drank so much that when he woke up he could not remember what had happened the night before. Noah had gotten stuck in a side eddy, and the main current of life was passing him by. When Michelle suggested that he join the Guard, however, Noah confessed that he found the idea intimidating—he wasn’t in very good shape, he said, and he wasn’t sure if he would measure up as a soldier. But Noah was besotted with Michelle, and thought it would not be chivalrous to send his girlfriend off to talk to the recruiters alone.
It had been a grim and frigid spring. On a gray day with the temperature stuck down in the thirties, Michelle and Noah drove over to the armory in Noah’s gray Chevy Astro van. They japed their way past the immense howitzer guarding the entrance to the building, pushed through the armory’s double glass front doors, and turned right down the wide main hallway. Inside the recruiter’s office, a height and weight chart hung on the wall, and posters urged BE ALL YOU CAN BE. There were two desks. Behind one sat a middle-age black man in a uniform. He was a sergeant first class and his name was Wilber A. Granderson. Michelle at down in one of the two chairs facing him, and Noah sat down in the other. Michelle announced that they might enlist, but first they had some questions. Was it really true the Guard could give them a free ride to college?
Granderson had a generous smile. He confirmed that the Guard would pay 100 percent of their college tuition at any institution in the state if they signed up for six years of regular Guard duty, plus two years in the Individual Ready Reserve. While in the reserves they would no longer go to drill, but they could be called upon in an emergency. That was it, he said. An eight-year commitment. In return, he could offer: full college tuition, a housing allowance of $220 per month, and a kicker bonus of an additional $200 for each month they spent in school. Plus, he would throw in a onetime enlistment bonus of $8,000. And the Guard would pay off any existing student loans.
It was a lot of money. Michelle wanted to make sure she understood the whole deal. What if she failed to make it to drill one weekend? She could make the time up, Granderson told her. What if she wanted to study abroad? Not a problem. She could simply add on an extra semester of drill time after she got back. The recruiter turned to Noah. What was on his mind? Noah wanted to know if a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana would be an issue. He could still sign up, Granderson replied, but first a specified amount of time had to elapse. While Noah could do the preliminary paperwork along with Michelle, he would have to wait several months before he could actually join the military.
That was the extent of their questions. Granderson told them to return with their birth certificates, and gave them a form to fill out that required all kinds of information about their backgrounds. That would take a while to pull together, Michelle thought—her family being so convoluted. After they left the armory, Michelle tallied up all the benefits Granderson was offering. Signing up for the National Guard would allow her to pay off her existing debt, realize her dream of transferring to Indiana University, quit her waitressing job, and move onto campus. She could be a real college student, living in a dorm, at a famous university. For that she would gladly surrender one weekend a month. Remembering the buff soldiers displayed in the posters on Granderson’s walls, Michelle fantasized that joining the Guard could also help her lose weight—she could go to a great school and get in better shape at the same time.
Michelle and Noah returned to the armory to take a multiple-choice exam called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. In a room filled with other potential soldiers, they sat down at neighboring desks, Michelle jazzed because she loved triumphing on standardized tests, Noah a wreck because he hated flubbing them. Afterward, Granderson phoned Michelle to discuss her marks. She had been two answers shy of a perfect score, he told her, and he rarely saw such good results. Granderson said she was leadership material, she could become an officer. He explained that joining the National Guard would give her limited options because of her gender. Over the preceding two decades, the percentage of the total army that was female had inched upward from 9.8 percent to 12.5 percent (and would grow to 15.7 percent in the decade to come). However, women were still banned from certain occupations. Specialties judged most likely to see direct combat—such as infantry and field artillery—remained restricted to male soldiers. And the main Guard unit that drilled in Evansville was field artillery. The only positions open to women in Evansville were slots in a small detachment that did support work. Michelle’s choices would be limited to driving a truck, fixing a truck, or repairing broken weapons. Granderson saw a more rosy future ahead if Michelle would pledge herself to the military full-time. She was really smart, she could do military intelligence, as long as she joined the regular army, Granderson told her. Michelle enjoyed the flattery, but understood herself to be a nonconformist—taking orders would not come easily. She stuck with her plan to join the Guard.
Over the next several weeks, Michelle filled out various documents, including a form in which she swore that she had never been fired from a job nor ever been court-martialed. Noah promised to enlist as soon as he could. Michelle felt less alone after she dropped by the armory one day to learn how to march and bumped into Angela Peterson—Angela’s younger brother had been in Michelle’s class at Central High, and when they had been underage Angela used to buy them beer. Angela was a pretty girl with a heart-shaped face and a pixie haircut. She had signed up that spring, too.
Granderson told Michelle to report back at the end of the month, ready to take a trip to the closest military entrance processing station, down in Louisville, Kentucky, an hour and a half south of Evansville. When Granderson put her into a military vehicle bound for Kentucky, she found Angela Peterson already inside. The two of them shared a hotel room in Louisville, where they spent a lot of time doing push-ups. Every female recruit had to be able to do three regular push-ups, no knees touching the floor. When she had first shown up at the armory, Michelle could not do any, but she hated being bad at something, so she and Angela practiced every night.
At the military entrance processing facility, medical staff took Michelle’s blood, asked her to pee into a cup, prodded her lymph nodes, and administered tests of her vision, hearing, and depth perception. She did her push-ups, as well as the requisite number of sit-ups, and then she performed a duck-walk in her underwear, so that the doctors could check for flat feet. On March 26, 2001, after she had passed all of the entrance requirements, a drill sergeant put a document in front of her. This was her formal contract, and after she signed her name, her commitment to the military would become binding. They told her to read the document out loud. “I, Michelle Fischer, do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the state of Indiana against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and the governor of Indiana and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to law and regulations,” Michelle recited. “So help me God.” That’s pretty much all the document said. Michelle trusted that it meant what Granderson had suggested—twelve weekends a year, plus two weeks of annual training.