Helen Thorpe’s latest book, “Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War,” has received numerous accolades, including selection as Time’s #1 nonfiction book of 2014. If you have not yet picked it up, I strongly recommend you add “Soldier Girls” to your summer reading list.
“Soldier Girls” follows the lives of three women over a span of 12 years and multiple tours of duty while serving in the Indiana National Guard. The women, who become friends during military service, come from very different backgrounds.
Michelle, the youngest, joins the National Guard for an eight-year stint after being steered by the promise of free education and additional monetary bonuses. Michelle is a very attractive young woman, constantly pursued by the male soldiers she serves with, so much so that at one point she is confined to simply sitting in a truck.
Debbie, the oldest of the three, was a manager of a hair salon who joined the National Guard at age 34 and served until she was 49—at which time she was the oldest soldier in the Guard. Debbie joined to fulfill a sense of duty and to emulate her father, a former Army drill sergeant. She enjoyed the social aspects of service and quickly became the den mother to the other soldiers.
Desma was a single mother of three who joined the Guard on a dare. Although the Guard prohibited enlistment of single mothers, she found a way to get around it. I found Desma to be the most intriguing of the three because she had the most obstacles to overcome and accomplished the most during her time in the Guard.
Prior to joining the Guard, Desma worked at various semi-skilled labor positions and never made more than $10 an hour. Desma was extremely smart; she was a whiz with electronics and other gadgets and was the only one at Camp Aberdeen who could figure out how to use certain encrypted radios that were handed down to the Guard from the Army. Desma ended up teaching every unit how to use them. It was surprising to me that she was not more successful in her civilian life, because she was extremely intelligent and a quick learner.
During her tour in Iraq, Desma drove an $800,000 Armored Security Vehicle (ASV) running convoy missions. She had never received any ASV training but after getting the assignment soon became highly skilled in the position, eventually taking over the dangerous assistant scout position—which meant she ran ahead of the convoy looking for bombs and other potentially dangerous issues to protect the civilian trucks in the convoy.
In her last tour of duty, Desma was severely injured when an object she was investigating turned out to be an improvised explosive device (IED) that ripped her ASV apart. Fortunately, the ASV was equipped with angular armor to deflect IED blasts, because without it Desma would have died. The IED changed Desma’s life forever: she suffered from PTSD, debilitating headaches, memory loss and stress fractures in her legs.
Once stateside, Desma began receiving compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA gave her a combined 30% rating, representing 10% each for headaches, shoulder injury and leg fractures. Although the VA diagnosed her with PTSD, Desma received a 0% rating for it. The VA gives 0% ratings when the condition is related to service but not severe enough to warrant monetary compensation.
I was not surprised when Desma received a 0% rating for her PTSD, because the VA is notorious for assigning low ratings. The VA also failed to initially evaluate her for traumatic brain injury (TBI), despite evidence of memory loss and the inability to stay focused, which are both common traits of a TBI. Thankfully, Desma finally saw a good doctor who recognized her symptoms; she was then compensated for her TBI and also received an increase for PTSD.
Thorpe also touched upon something in this book that I deal with almost every day in my practice: the fact that many veterans never report injuries when they separate from service.
When Michelle returned stateside, she was required to complete “reams of paperwork.” One of the forms was a post-deployment health assessment, which she tried to answer truthfully; however, she ended up denying experiencing any problems in service even though she had. Michelle simply answered the questions the way she thought the Guard wanted her to so she could get home.
Soldiers almost always fail to report mental and physical injuries when they are being separated from service because, as the book points out, doing so would “entangle them in the Army’s bureaucracy.” Unfortunately, when soldiers fail to report injuries at separation that is what ends up entangling them in bureaucracy, because the VA will use those separation examinations as evidence to deny valid compensation claims.
Aside from Desma’s IED incident and vague references to support of the Army, “Soldiers Girls” contains very little mention of combat. Instead, Thorpe focuses on the women’s relationships with each other; the way their time in the Guard affected their relationships with friends and family outside of the Guard; and the impact service had on their lives.
One of the criticisms of “Soldier Girls” laments the fact that a large portion of the book focused on the mundane daily lives of the women.
However, those details are precisely what makes Thorpe such a compelling author and why “Solder Girls” is such a great book.
These women signed up for the Guard because they thought it would be an easy way to earn extra money for college and support their families; with the exception of Debbie, none of them ever dreamed that they would be in combat. When the government mobilized the Guard, it had no real plan regarding what to do with all the troops it sent over to Iraq and Afghanistan. By focusing on the daily, non-combat lives of the troops, Thorpe highlights how ordinary and routine going to war has become, while also showing the devastating effects a tour of duty has on the civilian lives of our soldiers and their families.
By Timothy R. Franklin, an associate attorney at the Law Office of Sean Kendall. His national practice is focused on representing veterans in compensation claims before the Veterans Administration, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington D.C. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-449-4773.
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