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Excerpt from 'Soldier Girls'

"Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War" by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, August 2014). Credit: Scribner

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.

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.

She signed.

Excerpted from "Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War," by Helen Thorpe. Copyright © 2014 by Helen Thorpe. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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