Soldier Girls

Helen Thorpe

July 1, 2015 
The following is from Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls which follows the lives of three women over twelve years on their paths to the military, overseas to combat, and back home again. Thorpe’s journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Bazaar.

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.

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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.

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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 sat 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.

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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.

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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. She signed.

Michelle had a particularly close relationship with her mother, and when she thought about basic training, which she was slated to start in June 2001, she thought about it as their first separation. Yet Michelle had also been parenting herself for a long time. Her mother, Irene, battled crippling anxiety, the legacy of a childhood trauma. One day, when Irene was nine years old, her parents had been burning trash in the yard, and Irene had picked up a stick and begun playing with the fire. Her dress had ignited. She spent almost an entire year in the hospital, and the extensive burns left white ripples fanning across her back and arms. Irene grew into a fearful woman.

Michelle’s father possessed the opposite sort of temperament. His given name was Wilfred, though he always went by Fred. He was a bluff, colorful ne’er-do-well whose storied life included many hard-to-believe moments, such as the time he shot his own stepson or the time he volunteered to grapple a declawed grizzly bear inside a wrestling arena. “My dad’s the guy who sticks his hand up, and he’s like, ‘I’ll wrestle it,’” said Michelle. “You know?” Before Irene had married Fred, she had been married to one of his cousins, and they had two children, Michelle’s half siblings Tammy and Donovan. Meanwhile, Michelle’s father had been married a total of six times to four different women: Twice he had married one woman, twice he had married Michelle’s mom, and then he also married two other women one time apiece. It was by one of the other wives that Michelle’s three other half siblings, Daniel, Ray, and Cindy, were conceived. After Michelle’s parents had divorced for the second time, they had lived together for a third stint before they split for good. This last iteration of their relationship—the only one that Michelle can really remember—had ended one night while Michelle was in first grade, after her father had gotten drunk and belligerent, and her mother had called the police. Michelle had been sent to her aunt’s house, and what she remembered most vividly about that evening was the brusque police officer who came to her aunt’s door and asked if she could draw a picture of where her father kept his guns.

Michelle was the youngest child, and the only one her parents had had together. Like her half brother Ray, Michelle strongly resembled her father in physical appearance—she inherited his button nose and his laughing brown eyes—while the other children looked more like their mothers. All of them were heirs to a family history in which many men had served in the military: Michelle’s paternal grandfather had driven tanks across France in World War II, and Michelle’s father, one of her uncles, and her mother’s first husband had all served during Vietnam. Only Michelle’s uncle and stepfather actually saw combat, however; her father had spent those years locked up in various military prisons for repeatedly going AWOL, according to Michelle.

After he had left the military, Michelle’s father had held a steady job for about a decade at a company called Swanson Electric. They manufactured motors. She remembered going to visit him once and being awed as she watched him lower an immense engine into a vat of varnish. After ninety years in operation, however, that company had closed abruptly, and Fred Fischer never again found such steady work. Meanwhile, Irene had worked as a bookkeeper for twenty-five years at an industrial recycling company called General Waste, but lost that job when General Waste also closed. Irene had started doing factory work instead, and in the process her earnings greatly diminished. Michelle attended four different elementary schools and three different middle schools, as they moved almost every year. They became visibly poor, and onetime friends shunned Michelle because she did not own the right sort of clothes. After Irene began working in a factory where she made rubber seals for car doors, she and her daughter moved into a particularly rundown trailer.

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Irene was working the first shift, which meant that by the time Michelle woke up, her mother had already left. One day, while Michelle was in the middle of taking a shower, the water quit working, and she was stuck in the shower with no water and unrinsed shampoo in her hair. Michelle was eleven years old. She didn’t know how to fix the water, or whom to call, so she just stayed home from school. At times, Michelle and her mother relied upon food banks—beef stew out of a can, dried mashed potatoes. Michelle’s favorite movie was Return to Oz. Darker than the original, the movie depicts Dorothy unable to sleep, while the farm is about to fall into foreclosure. Dorothy is in trouble, and none of the adults around her can help—she is on her own. No matter how many times Michelle and her mother changed residences, Michelle rented that movie over and over again, and she found the act of repeatedly watching Dorothy endure her harrowing plights and come out all right in the end to be soothing.

Michelle harbored complicated feelings toward her father. She knew her precarious economic situation stemmed from his inability to provide support to her mother. She glowed when he bestowed his oft-wandering attention, but disliked the way he grew unpredictable after five or six drinks. She also became embarrassed by his garishness. One night, when she was invited to an awards ceremony at one of her middle schools, she felt excited about the prospect of bringing both of her parents to the dinner, as she rarely got to be with the two of them at the same time. Then her dad showed up at their trailer wearing short sleeves, and Michelle could clearly see the tattoo on his forearm, an image of a naked Indian squaw with particularly generous breasts. White trash, that’s what the other students would think. Michelle announced that she felt sick, and they skipped the awards ceremony.

Beginning when Michelle was about fourteen, she and her mother started sharing various homes with a series of relatives. First they lived with one of Michelle’s half sisters, and later they moved in with Michelle’s half brother Donovan. Michelle had looked forward to sharing a home with Donovan—they had been close when she was small, back before he had joined the navy. While they were living with Donovan, however, Michelle’s mother began working the night shift, and after Irene went to work, Michelle often watched Donovan do meth with a friend. The house Donovan had rented was an old, rambling place, and Michelle grew afraid of being alone there, since it creaked so much and had so many inscrutable corners. At the beginning of her sophomore year of high school, Michelle spent all of her school clothes money on a black Lab puppy that she named Potato. She threw tantrums when Donovan did meth around the dog, because she thought the stinky fumes would harm Potato.

After she got to Central High, Michelle announced that she was done with being the new girl—her mother could move again (and did), but Michelle would stay at Central. For the first time in her life, Michelle formed enduring friendships. In her freshman year, she hewed to a girl named Veronica. Like Michelle, Veronica had grown up poor, yet was smart and ambitious. Veronica was also wickedly funny, and Michelle admired her boldness. She thought it was cool when Veronica introduced her to pot. During her sophomore year of high school, Michelle and her mother began sharing a home with Michelle’s maternal grandmother. In that house, Michelle was not allowed to use the microwave, not allowed to use the back door, not allowed to use the telephone. If she wanted to use the bathroom, she had to ask permission. And her grandmother made Michelle take Potato to the pound. Michelle figured that her grandmother, a strict Catholic, must have hated Michelle’s father because he had divorced her mother not once but twice, and therefore hated Michelle, who so closely resembled him.

Partway through sophomore year of high school, Michelle and Veronica had a falling out. Michelle, now fifteen, attached herself fiercely to a boyfriend named Joe Hill, who lived less than a mile away from her maternal grandmother. Joe Hill wore black clothes and smoked Marlboro reds and looked like Sid Vicious. Despite his dangerous looks, Michelle found Joe Hill waiting for her faithfully in his gray Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera in the parking lot at Central High School every single day when the bell rang. She could set her watch by Joe Hill. Together they discovered grunge, then punk rock, blasting the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. To memorialize their union, Michelle and Joe went to a photography studio and took a formal portrait: Joe spiked his black hair skyward and donned a Ramones T-shirt and a necklace of heavy chain links, while Michelle wore a choker made of ball bearings and a T-shirt that said PORN STAR. She looked like a lost angel, blown off course. Michelle’s father proudly hung it up on the wall of his trailer.

During her high school years, Michelle tried asking her father to wear long sleeves because the sight of his tattoos caused her mortification, but he just laughed. Eventually Michelle learned to laugh, too, even about his six marriages and the stints in jail, though she considered her family a dark kind of comedy. The one bright thread running through the otherwise gloomy tapestry was the bond she forged with her paternal grandparents, who lived in one home for the entirety of Michelle’s childhood, and cherished her all their lives. Michelle spent many magic nights and weekends there, particularly after her mother started working at the factory. In the evenings, she could count on her grandfather to take out his banjo or guitar or violin—he played each of those instruments with equal virtuosity—and fill the house with music. Meanwhile, her strict, Bible-reading grandmother fed Michelle a proper meal and put her to bed at a set hour. Her grandparents provided all the safety she had ever known.

During senior year of high school, Michelle broke up with Joe Hill, although they remained friends. By this point, Michelle and her mother had moved into an apartment building called Maple Manor. The oncegrand house, a ramshackle old redbrick mansion with a wraparound porch, had been divided into six apartments. Michelle and her mother shared a one-bedroom on the second floor, which featured fading fleurde-lis wallpaper. Michelle’s mother was still working nights and Michelle secretly dated a cocaine addict for a while but she started having bad panic attacks, which ceased only after she ditched the cokehead. She and Veronica made up and Michelle spent the rest of senior year partying with her best friend.

The following year, Joe Hill introduced Michelle to his friend Noah Jarvis—a fellow guitar player—and Michelle started dating Noah during the fall semester of her first year at the University of Southern Indiana. Noah was a lanky, six-three stoner with olive skin, dreamy brown eyes, brown hair, and a goatee. He played guitar in a local punk rock band named Crank Case. Methamphetamine, or crank, was ubiquitous in southern Indiana, and by this point, half of Michelle’s siblings were hooked on it, but it wasn’t something she wanted to sample. She and Noah mostly just got high. They hung out with Veronica and Veronica’s other best friend, Colleen, who had both gone to Central High and were now both enrolled at the University of Southern Indiana, too. During their first year of college, Veronica and Colleen threw frequent parties in a raucous apartment they had furnished with old couches and band posters. Noah and Michelle listened to Pink Floyd a lot and talked about how much they hated the status quo. In November 2000, Michelle cast her first vote in a presidential election for Ralph Nader. In the tumultuous weeks that followed, as lawyers for Al Gore and George W. Bush debated hanging chads in Florida, some of Michelle’s ardently Democratic friends castigated her for giving her vote to a third-party candidate. Michelle replied that she could see little difference between the two big party candidates. Politically, she tended to cataclysmic scenarios of redemption. In a strange sort of way, four months later, the same kind of thinking impelled Michelle to enlist. The two acts appeared to be at odds—until Noah Jarvis joined her unit, Michelle often wondered if there was one single other Nader fan serving in the entire Indiana National Guard—but in both cases, she had been trying to flee from what scared her most: abject hopelessness. She had voted for Nader because she wanted to upend the political universe, and she had signed up for the Guard because she wanted to upend her life. She wanted to run away from her lousy job and the easy classes and all the meaninglessness she found up and down the Lloyd Expressway. She wanted to escape her father’s ruinous life and her mother’s sad dysfunction. She wanted to get out of this forgotten place where good jobs evaporated and bad jobs drained the life out of people. She wanted to leave behind the booze and the pot and the meth. She wanted not to end up like her older siblings, with blurry tattoos and raging addictions. That’s what she thought she was signing up for when she told Granderson that she would enlist: the opposite of what she knew, a way out.


From SOLDIER GIRLS. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2014 by Helen Thorpe.

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