“In the tradition of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Richard Rhodes, and other masters of literary journalism, Soldier Girls is utterly absorbing, gorgeously written, and unforgettable” (The Boston Globe). Helen Thorpe follows the lives of three women over twelve years on their paths to the military, overseas to combat, and back home…and then overseas again for two of them. These women, who are quite different in every way, become friends, and we watch their interaction and also what happens when they are separated. We see their families, their lovers, their spouses, their children. We see them work extremely hard, deal with the attentions of men on base and in war zones, and struggle to stay connected to their families back home. We see some of them drink too much, have affairs, and react to the deaths of fellow soldiers. And we see what happens to one of them when the truck she is driving hits an explosive in the road, blowing it up. She survives, but her life may never be the same again.
Deeply reported, beautifully written, and powerfully moving, Soldier Girls is “a breakthrough work...What Thorpe accomplishes in Soldier Girls is something far greater than describing the experience of women in the military. The book is a solid chunk of American history...Thorpe triumphs” (The New York Times Book Review).
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About the Author
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 once-grand 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 fleur-de-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.
Right before Michelle left for basic training, her half sister Tammy threw her a going-away party. Tamara, known as Tammy, held the party in her front yard. Noah showed up in a pair of blue jeans and a short-sleeved button-down shirt worn over a long-sleeved T-shirt. He slouched down low in a lawn chair, holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Michelle’s friends Veronica and Colleen dropped by on their way to another party. Most of her complicated family came, including her father, who drove up from Sebree, Kentucky, with his latest wife, a woman named Kathy. To celebrate Michelle’s decision to enlist, Fred Fischer had gotten a new tattoo on his other forearm—a naked soldier girl. He showed it off proudly. She wore only boots and a helmet, but she carried a big gun. Michelle got falling-down drunk on Mike’s Hard Lemonade and threw up in front of her church-loving grandmother. For years afterward, shame seared her at the thought of her grandmother watching her get so sloppy.
Michelle shipped off to basic training on June 4, 2001. Her mother drove her to the armory, and Noah came along to say good-bye. Michelle’s mother broke down in tears, triggering Michelle to follow suit, and even Noah misted up. Then Michelle clambered into the van that would take her to the airport, where she boarded an airplane for the first time in her life and flew to South Carolina. She had dressed in her most beloved clothes: a faded pair of Paris Blues jeans, an orange Roxy surf hoodie, and a light pink athletic T-shirt that had once belonged to Noah. As soon as she arrived at Fort Jackson, however, she was told to put her civilian clothes away.
VICTORY STARTS HERE, the post’s motto trumpeted. Fort Jackson was the army’s busiest point of entry, where half the country’s soldiers got their introductory training. It was hot and startlingly humid. Drill sergeants started yelling at the new recruits as soon as they got off the bus—Michelle had to drop and do push-ups right there in the parking lot—and quickly she became just another soldier in green, brown, and tan camo. She was issued four sets of battle dress uniforms, or BDUs, as well as a field jacket, and gray and black army workout clothes. She had to give up wearing her contact lenses—during basic, soldiers with bad eyesight were given identical brown plastic glasses. The glasses were so ugly that everyone called them birth control glasses, or BCGs, the idea being that nobody would have sex with you if you were wearing a pair.
Michelle had to wear her long hair pulled back into a bun or a braid; she was not allowed to tie it back in a ponytail. She was not allowed to use lacy scrunchies, fancy bows, barrettes with butterflies or sparkles or fake gems; she was not allowed to wear jewelry unless it was of a religious nature; she was not allowed to wear brightly colored eye shadow or visible lipstick. There was no time to put on makeup anyway. Suddenly there were acronyms for everything, and Michelle looked exactly like everyone else. In her BDUs and her BCGs, Michelle felt as though she had surrendered her entire identity. She found herself bitterly homesick and pined for home in the letters that she faithfully wrote to each of her parents. Michelle’s mother lost every letter that her daughter sent, but Michelle’s wayward father hung on to each one. He numbered the letters and kept them inside a red, three-ringed binder, along with the Valentine’s Day cards she had drawn for him when she was a little girl. “I love you and making you proud is really important to me,” Michelle wrote on June 17, 2001. Then she wished him a happy Father’s Day.
At the point when Michelle mailed that letter, she was in the middle of the first three weeks of basic, known as the red phase, when the drill sergeants were introducing the idea of total control. The recruits had to make their beds perfectly, with sharp corners and no wrinkles. They had to keep their personal areas immaculate. They had to wake up in pairs in the middle of the night for CQ duty, which basically meant standing guard. The fundamental idea was to get new soldiers into the habit of following orders, no questions asked. There was an ice cream machine in the chow hall, but Michelle was not allowed to go near it. She was not allowed to talk during a meal. At one point, Michelle’s mother mailed her photographs of the party at Tammy’s house, and Michelle wrote to her father, “Mom sent me some pictures of my going away party, so I have a picture of me, you & Kathy together. But I’m not allowed to hang it up because you & I have beer in our hands! I’m not allowed to hang up pictures w/alcohol in them. So that eliminates just about every picture from that day. But I showed them to my friends and they all say we look so much alike it looks like I was ‘picked out of your ass’! Go figure.”
Basic training proved to be an astonishing fitness program, and Michelle shrank in size as fat turned to muscle. The army had different standards for soldiers depending on gender and age. Before she could graduate, Michelle had to be able to perform thirteen push-ups and forty-seven sit-ups, and she had to be able to run two miles in at least nineteen minutes and forty-two seconds. (By comparison, a young man her age had to do thirty-five push-ups, forty-seven sit-ups, and two miles in sixteen minutes and thirty-six seconds.) As the days went by she kept shaving time off her clocked runs. “I just finished my physical strength test,” she wrote in her next letter to her father. “I missed my run time by thirty-five seconds . . . I am so mad at myself! I could have sucked it up and pushed myself a little harder. But I passed my push-ups and sit-ups.”
She learned how to read a topographical map, use a compass, administer basic first aid, rappel, and four different ways to choke a person into unconsciousness. She learned how to do the low crawl and the high crawl. One night, while she was hustling across a field of sand on her knees and elbows, under a snarled maze of barbed wire, with fake bullets flying overhead, she realized she had outdistanced the rest of her peers. For a moment she flipped over and lay on her back, looking up through the barbed wire at the orange tracer rounds glowing across the black sky. She found the sight unexpectedly beautiful. Afterward, she discovered that so much sand had gotten down into the sleeves of her BDUs that her elbows were rubbed raw and bleeding.
The temperature climbed into the nineties, and the humidity hit 100 percent. They put on their uniforms and all their gear, and donned rucksacks that weighed thirty pounds, and marched for miles through swampy, furnace-like afternoons. “Beat the heat cause their ain’t no heat like the Carolina heat ’cause the Carolina heat is hot! Hooah!” the soldiers had to chant before they were allowed to take a drink of water. Michelle was astonished at how profusely she sweat. Her dog tags left green stains on her breasts, and constantly snarled in her bra. Each of them had been assigned a “battle buddy,” and they were told to look out for each other. Michelle was paired with a Haitian immigrant who almost never spoke. Instead Michelle grew close to other members of her platoon. She formed strong ties with three young women, Carson, Shea, and Lawlor, as well as two young men, Davidson and McDonough. It was always last names; that was how they knew each other. McDonough grew infatuated with Michelle, but Michelle remained faithful to Noah. To Michelle’s surprise, the platoon chose her to represent them in a formal ceremony. “I was so flattered I almost cried,” she wrote to her father. “Everyone in my platoon means a lot to me. We’re still rough around the edges, but we’re starting to act as a team.”
On the first day of the white phase of basic training, drill sergeants herded Michelle and other trainees into a gas chamber. After they put on their masks, they were doused with tear gas. Then the drill sergeants ordered them to take off their masks, breathe in the tear gas, spell their names, and say their Social Security numbers. After the deliberate exposure, Michelle walked around outside in a big circle flapping her arms, with her eyes and nose streaming. They spent the next three weeks focusing on their M16 assault rifles. Until she entered the white phase of basic training, also known as the gunfighter phase, Michelle had only fired a weapon once. Back in elementary school, in an attempt to seek a greater closeness with her father, she had begged for permission to fire his shotgun. He had taken her outside of her grandparents’ home, rested the gun on top of a cooler, and stood behind her to help catch the recoil. Now Michelle slept with her gun, did push-ups with it lying across her hands so that her lips kissed it when she bent toward the ground, used it as a weight during PT, and carefully took it apart and cleaned it and put it back together every night. She also spent hours and hours firing it. Unexpectedly, Michelle fell in love with shooting. Her experience of time became suspended, and half a day would slip by unnoticed.
Targets popped up, then disappeared, and she had only a few seconds to hit each one. They all carried instructions for how to unjam their rifles on pieces of paper tucked into the band of their helmets, and when the omnipresent sand fouled Michelle’s rifle, one of the other soldiers would read the instructions to her out loud, so that she could get her rifle working again. Gradually, she grew familiar with the factors that affected her accuracy: whether she pulled or squeezed the trigger, how loosely or firmly she held her weapon, if her body was relaxed or tense. She decided that shooting was all about breath, for her shots varied wildly until she began relaxing her body and squeezing the trigger gently at the very bottom of her exhale. Then she qualified as a marksman.
Michelle learned how to operate a machine gun, how to dismantle a land mine, how to fire a grenade launcher, and how to throw a hand grenade. The real grenades felt unexpectedly heavy. Her drill sergeant told her she would blow herself up if she made a mistake, which made her clumsy with terror, but as she leaned against a wall clutching two grenades against her chest, a trainer standing beside her asked where she was from, and when she said Indiana, he brought up Bobby Knight. So then they chatted about college basketball while she pulled out the pins and threw the grenades over the wall, and she lobbed them far enough to survive. After that, the drill sergeants let the trainees have a rare day of freedom, when a band performed a rock concert. The afternoon ended badly when a soldier tossed a full plastic bottle in the air, causing a long silver arc of water to splash over the crowd. The drill sergeants made the entire crowd kneel down for the rest of the concert.
One week later, it was time for the last phase of basic, the blue phase: night ops and MREs. In the second week of August, Michelle and the rest of her platoon began the final test, a seventy-two-hour war simulation exercise. They rucked out in all their gear, hiked six miles, then started digging foxholes. The temperature climbed to a high of 99 degrees, although with 97 percent humidity, the sweat-drenched soldiers experienced a heat index of 107 degrees. That night, while Michelle was helping to unload MREs off a truck, lightning flared, and she finished the job wrapped in sheets of rain. Michelle slept in a leaky tent, curled up in a cloth sleeping bag, lying in a puddle. Sometime after the rain ceased, drill sergeants threw tear gas into her tent, and then at dawn, they hustled everybody into the foxholes. They were supposed to watch for an attack, but instead Michelle rested the edge of her Kevlar helmet on a post, closed her eyes, and slid into a lucid dream in which a drill sergeant leaped into the foxhole to berate her.
The following day, when the heat index hit 102 degrees, the merciless drill sergeants took them home by a more circuitous way, so that the foot march lasted nine miles instead of six. They finished by trudging through an enormous expanse of sand, where Michelle’s calves began to burn and her hip began to ache and she fell farther and farther behind. She had developed a stress fracture in her hip due to the training exercises, although she did not know this yet; all she knew was that she could not keep up. Her friends Davidson and McDonough dropped back to make sure she finished the exercise, and toward the end of the hike, the two young men took her by the elbows and half carried Michelle across the sand. When they neared the barracks, they heard Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blaring over the intercom. “Had the guts, got the glory,” reverberated across the post. “Went the distance, now I’m not gonna stop.” Not her kind of music, but it meant the ordeal was over. As they lined up in formation, she saw that half of the newly minted soldiers around her were crying.
On August 16, 2001, Michelle put on her dress greens and marched to her graduation ceremony. She felt bold, able, ready for action. Her body had grown lean and she knew the name and function of every single part of her assault rifle. She had also proved to herself that she could survive nine weeks of separation from her mother, who drove all the way to Fort Jackson for Michelle’s graduation. In the years since she had lost her bookkeeping job, Irene had grown antisocial, to the point where she rarely left the house except to go to work. Yet she had made the marathon drive—ten hours in a car with Donovan and Noah. Thrown by the unfamiliar surroundings of the busy military base, Michelle’s mother appeared uncomfortable, wilting in her baggy shorts and T-shirt. She complained about the humidity, which was her way of voicing that she felt off-center, but Michelle was so happy to see her that she didn’t care.
Noah arrived wearing black Doc Martens, black jeans, and a T-shirt that said DR. FUSION’S FUNK BAND. Michelle’s mother snapped a photograph of the pair of them standing together—Michelle in her crisp dress greens, Noah in his grunge attire. The difference in their clothes spoke of how far Michelle had traveled from her old self in only two and a half months. She had called Noah every single week, but when she first saw him in person, she could not stop giving him hugs. Donovan wore a sleeveless orange shirt with gaping armholes that let him sweat unimpeded through the blazing day. He had been the first of their generation to put on a uniform: Michelle had been five or six years old when he had joined the navy. She had missed him terribly when he left. He had sent back dashing pictures of himself in his dress blues, but after he was discharged Donovan had come home aimless, lacking a clear future, and then came the losing battle with meth. Michelle knew it had to be hard for Donovan to set foot on an active duty post and loved that he had come to celebrate her accomplishment.
The following day, Michelle had to report to Aberdeen Proving Ground, on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, for the second half of her training. She was going to spend the next thirteen weeks at Aberdeen, studying to become a weapons mechanic. Noah had volunteered to drive her there. On August 17, 2001, they loaded Michelle’s belongings into his rental car: her civilian identity folded up inside her backpack (Roxy hoodie, Paris Blues jeans, Noah’s old pink T-shirt, flip-flops), and her military self packed into a dark green duffel bag (two pairs of shining black boots, black wool socks, BDUs, PT clothes, white athletic socks, sneakers, underwear, sports bras). Nobody else she knew from Fort Jackson was coming with her to Aberdeen, and Michelle said good-bye to all of the people she had just grown close to. Then she said good-bye to her mother and her brother. She and Noah headed north on I-95.
Nine hours away, Aberdeen Proving Ground was where the army and the marine corps trained their weapons mechanics. Michelle had elected to become a small-weapons mechanic—a 45B, in military shorthand, which everybody pronounced as “forty-five Bravo”—because it seemed better than becoming a truck driver or a truck mechanic, which were the only other job specialties open to her at the armory in Evansville. She would spend the next thirteen weeks learning how to take apart and put back together every small weapon used by the army. Noah dropped Michelle, her backpack, and her duffel bag off at the building that housed the post’s command. He teared up as they said good-bye, and hating to see the pain she was causing him, Michelle cut their farewell short. She ducked inside the building, then caught sight of Noah through a window; as he drove off, she saw him execute a sad salute in her direction.
When Michelle checked in at the post’s command, a drill sergeant introduced her to a short, heavyset white girl wearing black glasses. He told the girl to show Michelle to the barracks. The other young woman had already completed most of her time at Aberdeen. She explained to Michelle that the female barracks were under construction, and for the time being women were being housed in a restricted hallway in an otherwise all-male barracks. There were not very many women there. At Fort Jackson, Michelle had belonged to a company that had included roughly equal numbers of men and women, but at Aberdeen there were about one hundred soldiers in Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, 61st Ordnance Brigade, and on the day she arrived, Michelle became the company’s fourth female. As they walked to the barracks, the other woman looked Michelle over, noticed her curvy figure, long blond hair, face still shining with innocence. “They are just going to love you,” she announced drily.
The female soldier escorted Michelle down a hallway of white cinder block and white linoleum to the small room that she would now share with Julieta Mendoza, a Latina soldier from New Mexico. Mendoza would become Michelle’s closest friend at Aberdeen. Everybody went by their last names, and Michelle never learned the first names of the other women who lived on their hallway: Jackson, an African American soldier from Florida, and later Nguyen and Cordero, who were Vietnamese American and Native American, respectively. Soldiers arrived and departed from Aberdeen at staggered intervals, and over the thirteen weeks that Michelle spent there, the number of women in the company would rise to ten, but women would always remain a scarce commodity.
The drill sergeants were vigilant and fearsome. They inspected rooms at all hours, and Michelle and Mendoza learned to keep theirs spotless. The most alarming drill sergeant was a woman who could veer with astonishing swiftness from likable into what Michelle called “bitch mode.” She ripped their rooms apart, even tossing the ceiling tiles to check for contraband cigarettes. The female soldiers took turns cleaning the bathroom and the hallway. Once a week, one of them would sweep and mop the white linoleum floor, and then polish the floor with an enormous buffing machine. When it was her turn, Michelle put on headphones and cranked up Incubus, her favorite band. At night, when they did CQ duty, sometimes Michelle could not resist putting her head down on her arms and closing her eyes, even though she knew she would pay a penalty if the drill sergeants caught her napping. There was a square white telephone on the desk that was only supposed to be used in an emergency, but bored soldiers often used the phone to order Chinese food or pizza, or to sneak phone calls to friends. Michelle had not reported her hip injury until she arrived at Aberdeen because she had feared being “recycled,” or having to start basic all over again. The drill sergeants at Aberdeen hassled her about being unfit, saying she shouldn’t be there at all, but they sent her to physical therapy and let her continue.
The rest of the female soldiers in her company were studying welding or maintenance of military vehicles, and when her weapons classes began Michelle discovered that she was the only woman in the room. The other students were National Guard, regular army, marines—but all men. The instructors handed out manuals with yellow paper covers and mimeographed sheets. They began with the fundamentals, then worked their way through each one of the guns jointly used by the army and the marines. They started by studying the M16 assault rifle that Michelle had just learned to shoot, followed by the .50-caliber machine gun, and an automatic grenade launcher. Michelle memorized the parts of each gun and soon became fluent with the workings of trigger mechanisms and firing pins. She excelled on tests, which infuriated a highly competitive army soldier from Illinois who vied ferociously with her for top marks. Michelle often outscored the gung-ho soldier, but when it came time for the class elections, the other students voted him their leader. Michelle got it. She wasn’t part of the club—you had to be male to belong.
In the classroom, Michelle could not earn full respect from the male soldiers, but outside of the classroom, she could not escape their attention. Even when she slouched around the barracks wearing a pair of baggy sweatpants and a gray T-shirt that said ARMY in block letters, male soldiers fell over each other to compete for her favor. Soldiers were expected to look sharp, and at first Michelle stayed up late wearing a headlamp, struggling to press the wrinkles out of her uniform, but then two different male soldiers declared they really liked ironing and volunteered to press her uniform for her. The help allowed Michelle to focus on her boots. In the common room where everybody gathered in the evenings to watch television, other soldiers vied to teach her how to use a heat gun to open up the pores in the leather to get that glassy shine.
Of her many suitors, the most assiduous was Alfred Turner, a handsome, sweet-talking soldier from North Carolina. Alfred was nineteen years old, African American, with mahogany skin, a muscular body, dark brown eyes set wide apart, full lips, a pencil mustache, and a radiant smile. He had signed up to serve in the army reserves, and was studying the maintenance of Bradleys. Alfred had a sentimental nature, and sought opportunities to prove his devotion. Where the women’s hallway intersected with the rest of the building, a large sign announced in red letters FEMALE SOLDIERS ONLY. Failure to comply would result in disciplinary action according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, warned the sign. This did not stop Alfred from sprinting down the hall to slip love notes decorated with hand-drawn flowers underneath Michelle’s pillow. He called the sprints “night missions,” and conducted them while other soldiers gathered in the common room.
As the weeks slipped by, Michelle slowly warmed to the sweet-talking soldier from North Carolina. She intended to remain faithful to Noah, but as Alfred waged his fervent pursuit, she began to question how long she would be able to hold out. Alfred was spectacularly handsome—“he was easy on the eyes,” Michelle would say later—as well as persuasive. During study breaks, they began sitting together in a small wooden gazebo, where Alfred crooned to her, singing amorous lyrics from R&B songs while listening to the originals on his Discman. One day, Alfred presented Michelle with a tiny silver key, possibly taken from his luggage, upon which he had scratched a homemade engraving of a valentine. It was the key to his heart, he said. Alfred’s attention caused Michelle’s self-esteem to soar and made her longing for Noah dwindle. Realizing that she was not going to be able to honor her commitment, Michelle broke up with Noah in a letter, then stole secret moments with Alfred. They secluded themselves in the laundry room, one of the few places on the base where they could achieve any sort of privacy, and held trysts while washing their clothes. Michelle took a ridiculous photograph of Alfred with a French fry stuck up his nose and hung it inside her wall locker.
In the middle of their nascent romance, Alfred told Michelle that he was going to leave the reserves and join the regular army. He loved the military, he said, he had found his calling; he wanted to serve in the army full-time. He made the change while they were at Aberdeen. Alfred had arrived there before Michelle, and he finished his training at about the time Michelle reached the midway point of her thirteen weeks. Alfred was ordered to leave for a US Army base in Germany, but first he went home to see his family in North Carolina. He called Michelle frequently on the CQ phone, once causing a ruckus when a drill sergeant answered. On September 7, 2001, Alfred wrote Michelle a steamy letter. He used a stamp that said LOVE with a red rose where the O should have been, drew roses twining up and down the borders of the letter, and told her that he saw her face every time he closed his eyes. He described listening to a voice mail Michelle had left for him over and over again, and apologized for getting her in trouble by calling on the CQ phone. He also enclosed a calling card so that they could spend more time on the pay phone. Mentioning a memorable interlude in the laundry room, he wrote: “Hooah!” He promised to visit Aberdeen at some point, although coyly he refused to say when.
Alfred’s letter arrived during the week when Michelle was tackling her fourth gun. She had already mastered the rifle, the machine gun, and the automatic grenade launcher. Now she had begun studying the M9 semiautomatic. On a carefree, Indian summer kind of day, Michelle had all the pieces of a 9mm laid out across her desk when a drill sergeant named Mark Reed burst into the classroom. Reed was a thirty-six-year-old noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the marine corps, with olive skin and chiseled features. One week earlier, he had taught the class how to operate the .50-caliber. Now Reed appeared jangled. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, he announced. Other planes had been hijacked, too, and one was in the air somewhere over Pennsylvania. The base represented a potential target. Reed told the students that if they heard anything unusual, they should jump out of the window and lie down close to the building. Then he left.
Michelle looked down at the pieces of the 9mm strewn across her desk. Should she reassemble the gun? But the training models were held together with wire and pins, and she had no bullets. The absurdity of her situation struck Michelle: she was a trained soldier on a military base studying weapons, and yet she did not have a gun that would fire. Why did Reed want her to jump out of the window and lie down next to the building? That seemed like a dumb thing to do. Michelle felt unarmed, defenseless. When the instructor released them for their midmorning break, the students spilled out of the room. Many of them rushed to the bank of pay phones over by the vending machines. Michelle stood in line waiting to call her mother, but the base command turned off the pay phones before she got her chance. They had decided that it might be a security risk to let anyone call out. This left Michelle rattled. So did the increased security measures—drill sergeants organized night patrols and had everyone sign in and out at the entrance to each building.
That evening, a crowd gathered in the common room to watch the impossible images—the passenger planes flying too low, the shuddering collapse of the towers. The room filled with noise as the soldiers hollered army chants and thundered, “HOOAH!” The weird energy in the room disturbed Michelle as much as the unbelievable images on the television screen. All that billowing dust met by this angry glee. Why were her classmates cheering? She felt so afraid that she didn’t even know she was afraid and instead had the unsettling sense that the scene around her had become surreal. Michelle felt cut off from the other people in the room, as if they were walled off behind glass. Money for college, a viable future—that’s all she had meant to sign up for. But as she watched the first tower fall and then the second one, and saw smoke pouring out of a hole in the Pentagon, she saw that she was also watching the collapse of her pretty expectations. The notions she had cherished in the spring, when she had brought Noah along to talk to the recruiters—the idea that they would upgrade their lives while also getting in better shape and risking nothing essential—now appeared vain and foolish. Her future seemed dim and freighted and hard to discern, but she could see already that it would be nothing like what she had imagined.
Table of Contents
Author's Note 11
I Indiana, 2001-2003
1 Hooah! 15
2 Don't Worry About Being a Female 59
3 Drill 90
4 Three Months of Hell 115
5 High Altitude 174
6 The Tiki Lounge 194
II Afghanistan, 2004-2005
1 Off Safety 231
2 Codependent 259
3 Rain 280
4 Translation 308
5 Easter 338
6 Sea World 384
III Indiana, 2005-2007
1 Welcome Home, Dad 417
2 Out of Uniform 446
3 Answered Prayers 456
IV IRAQ, 2008
1 Look, Fuckers 479
2 Hooker 515
3 Anger Management 568
V Colorado and Indiana, 2009-2013
1 Huge Billy Clubs 589
2 Happy Bomb Day 609
3 Numb 641