Author Interviews
4:28 am
Sun August 10, 2014

Sept. 11 Changed Everything: Following 3 Women In The National Guard

Originally published on Sun August 10, 2014 10:54 am

In spring 2001, three women enlisted in the Indiana National Guard. Each had her own idea of what a stint in the Guard might mean — free education, a sense of purpose, extra money. But just months after they signed up, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred and what they thought would be a couple days of drills each month turned into long overseas deployments.

In her new book, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, Helen Thorpe follows the lives of Desma Brooks, Michelle Fischer and Debbie Helton for 12 years. Thorpe talks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the soldiers she profiled and what they took away from their experiences in the National Guard.


Interview Highlights

On the three women profiled in the book

Michelle Fischer was 18 when she signed up for the National Guard. She was a totally unorthodox solider in the sense her beliefs didn't line up with the rest of her colleagues in the National Guard very well. She had just voted for Ralph Nader, she liked to wear a rainbow hemp anklet, and she opposed both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when those wars came to be.

Debbie Helton was 30 years older than Michelle, and she had always wanted to join the military. Her dad was in the army, and she viewed serving in the military as the most fulfilling aspect of her life.

Desma Brooks was a single mother with three children, juggling three jobs to support them. And the military represented an extra paycheck and a new way she could prove her own competence after dropping out of high school.

On the strategies they used to get through the stresses of being in a war zone

I think they themselves will call these "coping mechanisms" also. So, they were stationed on Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. And yes, they were in a relatively "safe" situation [as a support battalion they were not in direct combat]. So their jobs were stressful, the life was stressful — they were far from home. Debbie decided that, you know, after fixing broken AK-47s every day, she wanted a cocktail or two in the evening in order to help herself relax, unwind and be able to go to sleep in a communal tent that she shared with nine other women.

... Desma discovered that if she went to the medics and asked them very persuasively they would write her a prescription for pills that would help her go to sleep. And she taught Michelle that she could do the same. So, Desma and Michelle were going and getting prescription pills like Vicodin in order to sleep at night. Again — living communally in a tent, it was hard for everyone to sleep.

On the challenges they faced when they returned home

Each of them struggled, even after their first deployment, coming back from Afghanistan, which in hindsight they view as the easier of the two deployments. They would have panic attacks, especially in an overwhelming or overstimulating environment.

On what they took away from the National Guard

I think that they had life-transforming experiences. I think they realized that maybe ... when they signed up they were naive to think that war couldn't happen. But you see Michelle Fischer come home and she would never trade that year in Afghanistan. It was the first time she left the country. She had thought that she came from challenging circumstances but then she saw global poverty in Afghanistan and realized that she led, really, a relatively privileged life.

I think Desma feels that her service in the military was the one thing that she saw through ... she had dropped out of high school, she had ended her marriage, but the military was a commitment that she honored. She's very, very proud of that.

And Debbie clearly feels it was the highlight of her life.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In the spring of 2001, three women enlisted in the Indiana National Guard. Each one had her own idea of what a stint in the Guard might mean - perhaps free education, a sense of purpose, extra money. But just months after they raised their right hands, 9/11 happened. And what they thought would be a couple days of drill each month turned into long, foreign deployments. That is the topic of a new book by Helen Thorpe. The book is called "Soldier Girls," and it follows the lives of Desma Brooks, Michelle Fischer and Debbie Helton at home and at war. Helen Thorpe joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio. Welcome.

HELEN THORPE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Could you give us a one-sentence, thumbnail sketch of each of these women?

THORPE: Sure. Absolutely. Michelle Fischer was 18 when she signed up for the National Guard. And she was a totally unorthodox soldier in the sense that her beliefs didn't line up with the rest of her colleagues in the National Guard very well. She had just voted for Ralph Nader. She liked to wear a rainbow hemp anklet. And she opposed both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when those wars came to be.

Debbie Helton was 30 years older than Michelle. And she had always wanted to join the military. Her dad was in the Army and she viewed serving in the military as the most fulfilling aspect of her life. Desma Brooks was a single mother with three children, juggling three jobs to support them. And the military represented an extra paycheck and a new way she could prove her own competence after dropping out of high school.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you paint a vivid picture of the stresses of being in a war zone for these three women. When they were deployed to Afghanistan, they were support battalion. They were not in combat. But on the other hand, they were not exactly safe. What impressed me was that each one of them kind of came up with strategies to get by. Could you talk about that?

THORPE: Yeah. And I think they themselves would call these coping mechanisms also. So they were stationed on Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. And yes, they were in a relatively safe situation. So their jobs were stressful. The life was stressful. They were far from home. Debbie decided that, you know, after fixing broken AK-47s every day, she wanted a cocktail or two in the evening in order to help herself relax, unwind and be able to go to sleep in a communal tent that she shared with nine other women.

WERTHEIMER: Good lord.

THORPE: And Desma discovered that if she went to the medics and asked them very persuasively, they would write her a prescription for pills that would help her go to sleep. And she taught Michelle that she could do the same. So Desma and Michelle were going and getting prescription pills like Vicodin in order to sleep at night. Again, living communally in a tent, it was hard for everyone to sleep.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we talk a lot about what happened to the soldiers who left Afghanistan to come home. Mostly in those cases, we're talking about men who were in combat. What did you learn about the experience of women returning from those wars?

THORPE: Each of them struggled, even after their first deployment coming back from Afghanistan, which in hindsight they view as the easier of the two deployments. They would have panic attacks, especially in an overwhelming or over-stimulating environment.

WERTHEIMER: We have a passage here which really illustrates that point. It's on page 243. Maybe you should set it up for us.

THORPE: This passage is actually a description of Michelle in a Target. And she's gone there because it's time for her to return to college. She's managing to use the GI benefits to pay for college as she had hoped originally. And she's trying to, you know, buy all the stuff she needs to go to school. (Reading) Her peripheral vision blackened. Her sense of hearing dropped. Her heart thudded in her chest. Primeval questions blared across her mind. Am I safe here? Is this a good place? She could not have justified why in rational terms, but it seemed to her there was something fantastically amiss - something malignant even - with a store that sold 25 different brands of toilet paper. How could this level of material abundance be morally acceptable given the poverty on the other side of the globe? And now that the flesh of reality had been peeled back and she could look underneath the surface of things, she could see that she was utterly utterly abandoned and surrounded by nameless danger.

WERTHEIMER: In the end, did they end up getting something like what they wanted from the Guard?

THORPE: I think they had life-transforming experiences. I think they realized that maybe they signed - when they signed up they were naive to think that war couldn't happen. But you see Michelle Fischer come home. And she would never trade that year in Afghanistan. It was the first time she left the country. She had thought that she came from challenging circumstances, but then she saw global poverty in Afghanistan and realized she had led really a relatively privileged life. I think Desma feels that her service in the military was the one thing she saw through 'cause she had dropped out of high school and she had ended her marriage. But the military was a commitment that she honored. She's very very proud of that. And Debbie clearly feels it was the highlight of her life.

WERTHEIMER: Helen Thorpe - her new book is called "Soldier Girls: The Battles Of Three Women At Home And At War." Thank you very much for doing this.

THORPE: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.