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'Soldier Girls' review: American women at war

A group of female Marines on patrol in

A group of female Marines on patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand province, 2009. Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

SOLDIER GIRLS: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe. Scribner, 397 pp., $28.

Midway through "Soldier Girls," an American unit meets Akbar Khan, its new Afghan translator, and invites him to climb into their Humvee. "Akbar was not timid," writes author Helen Thorpe, "but it was the first time he had ever been in a military vehicle, the first time he had ever interacted at length with armed soldiers, and the first time he had been told to put on a seat belt."

Khan spoke six languages fluently -- Pashtu, Dari, Farsi, Punjabi, Urdu and English -- but he "suffered a mild sense of shock to see that two of the soldiers were women."

One reward of "Soldier Girls" is the unlikely bond that flourishes between the young translator and these two women, plus a third back at a former Soviet air base converted into Camp Phoenix. Thorpe's second work of nonfiction takes an unvarnished look -- as her subtitle puts it -- at "The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War."

The book is as choppy as the personalities and the 12 years it covers. The story begins in 2001 with Michelle Fischer, a headstrong Ralph Nader voter from a rural Indiana family rife with "blurry tattoos and raging addictions." Her father celebrates her enlistment by having a naked soldier girl tattooed on his forearm.

Next up is Debbie Helton -- an Olive Oyl look-alike, cheerful, alcoholic, maternal and chatty. At 51, Helton's hunger for adventure has her begging to be deployed out of the Indiana National Guard's Bravo Company, 113th Support Battalion. Once overseas, she misses her dog more than her man.

The most complicated soldier is Desma Brooks, a single mother of two daughters and a son whose wizardry with radios at Fort Polk, Louisiana, wins her a medal of commendation. During the family separation of basic training, her son, Josh, develops a stutter. When she must go to war, a conscientious Brooks splits him and his sisters among a shifting cast of relatives and friends. Painfully, the kids do not thrive.

In a "M*A*S*H"-like touch, their mother channels her fury by ordering her unit a Clydesdale (her supervisor stops the paperwork). Once in Afghanistan, she livens up Camp Phoenix with vodka and pink flamingos. She and Fischer huddle under a blanket and blow hash smoke through dryer sheets in a futile attempt to mask the smell.

These women lead messy lives, fall into drunken stupors, make sordid sexual choices -- not unlike soldiers everywhere, and people generally. What is different is their poverty. All three drive beaters; opportunities elude them for want of a reliable car and what the middle-class would deem trivial amounts of cash. These parts of the book are heartbreaking.

When a horrified Fischer -- who enlisted before 9/11 -- finds out she must deploy, she cycles through her options: "She could break her legs, she could get tattoos on her face, she could get pregnant," Thorpe writes. Fischer has scrimped together $1,300 toward transferring to Indiana University; instead, she disassembles her life and "ordered kegs of Killian's Irish Red and threw a party, took friends out to dinner, bought her mother a new bed."

Home from her first mission, Brooks is baffled to "watch herself fail to cope. She had not been shot; she had not seen anybody get blown up. She had spent her days at the motor pool. Why could she not do the laundry?"

Journalist Thorpe is drawn to young American lives. "Just Like Us," her well-regarded 2011 book, focused on four undocumented high school girls in Colorado. Gifted in sifting for details, Thorpe notes that some soldiers tied stuffed animals to their gear, "as if the toys could keep them safe." When rocket-propelled grenades threatened Camp Phoenix, a frightened clutch of women do the hokey pokey.

These are absorbing, funny moments. But too often, Thorpe tangles the book in awkward exposition and tedious excerpts from Helton's journals. What's more, "much of the dialogue is reconstructed," Thorpe writes, adding that she simply changed the names of soldiers whose stories she didn't check out. She gives one of her central figures an alias, but doesn't say which one.

All this lessens the grip of "Soldier Girls." It registers a far cry from David Finkel's contemporary masterpieces -- "The Good Soldiers" and "Thank You for Your Service" -- but is still a cry worth attending, sounded by a band of sisters put in harm's way.

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