Outside the Genre

In honor of 9/11, I thought I’d begin this section with a book I read while traveling on women in the military. 9/11 is such a tragedy and this is my small way of acknowledging those who died, both in the terrorist attack and the war that followed.


Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe



Overall Rating: 4

Quick summary: In 2001, the National Guard recruited men and women alike with the attractive offer of one weekend a month, two weeks a year of service in exchange for full college tuition along with a monthly paycheck. Thorpe follows the lives of three women who join the Indiana National Guard prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks for three entirely different reasons. When all three of them are called to active duty status and are ordered to serve overseas, their lives are changed forever. Each of the women struggle with the ramifications of their tour(s) of duty, none of whom can say they were left unscathed. Thorpe faithfully relays the women’s thoughts and opinions regarding their deployment and their assimilation to civilian life.

I picked this book up on a whim. I’m not sure why I decided to read it, other than I recently moved to a military town. I come from a long line of service men and women. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II (despite one of them living in an internment camp), my father and mother met in the Navy, and three of my uncles served in the military, two of whom retired from their respective branches. I have three cousins who have served or are currently serving in the military, two of whom are women. I guess on some level I thought it was time to learn a little about what the most recent wars have been like, since its not a topic or experience my family openly talks about.

It was within the first 100 pages that I cried for the first time. Not because anyone died or had their heart broken, but because I easily related to the reasons two of the three women joined the National Guard. It was especially emotional for me since one of the women sent overseas has three young children and I can see myself as a mother making that impossible decision with my own 2.5 children (I am currently pregnant). It would only be the first of a few crying jags while reading this book, but it struck me how ordinary life can be so poignant and powerful. There didn’t need to be any build up in the plot line or contrived conflict for these women’s stories to be engrossing—it happened because their stories are mundane and oh-so relatable.

Thorpe does an excellent job of detailing the character of the three women in ways that are both flattering and honest. The story describes their time serving in the military, but also their home lives, what they experienced growing up, and how they coped once they returned. Like any good writer, Thorpe makes each of the women sympathetic and offers them up as both heroes and human beings. Thorpe’s writing is smooth and the transitions between time and place were as seamless as they could be considering the book covers a decade.

For me, the discussion threading through the book of what is a woman’s role in the military was the most interesting. Thorpe doesn’t really get into the economic impact of women serving in the military on a macro scale, but certainly on a micro-level the financial implications for family units with women service members is incredibly beneficial. On the other hand, the emotional cost to the family, especially if there are children involved, makes the whole issue muddy. Thorpe openly states at the end of the book that she does not believe women should serve overseas because she deems the cost to be too great. Each of the three women who served also share their opinions at the end of the book.

In the end, I have to disagree with Thorpe. The cost of war is great—it is costly in terms of money, in terms of time, and, most importantly, in terms of lives. The men and women who have died and continue to die overseas is a tragedy. Of course there are going to be ramifications of those deaths (and injuries) here in the United States. It is the COST of WAR. If we as a nation better understood and saw the sacrifices, if the sacrifices weren’t regulated to those with limited economic options, then perhaps we’d demand our politicians make different decisions or approach foreign policy in alternate ways. We all share in the burden of war, whether that’s caring for our wounded veterans, taking care of children left behind as their parent(s) serve overseas, or providing professional opportunities for veterans with military specific job-skills who struggle with emotional trauma that we may not understand like those symptoms of traumatic brain injury. We cannot simply prevent women from serving, thinking that it’s going to somehow make war safer, less costly, or better for our families. Whether it is exclusively men who die or are injured overseas, or whether it is men and women who face these perils in active duty service, our families and our nation pay a price—we are all in this together as Americans.

Is it worth buying? ($11.48 paperback Amazon.com)

Yes, absolutely. It gives a really interesting history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and multiple viewpoints about women in the military. If this topic is up your alley, then hearing the thoughts and experiences of these three women is integral to synthesizing your own opinions about 9/11, patriotism, and war. I bought this as a paperback at the airport (read: I paid WAY more than the Amazon price), but it’s a bit cheaper if you buy it for an electronic device or, even better, borrow it from the library.

Something else you might enjoy:

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion: A Novel by Fannie Flag is not a biography, but it is about the seldom talked about women who served as pilots in World War II. I enjoyed the characters in this novel immensely and thought the historical facts were beautifully interwoven with fictional dialogue. If non-fiction is a bit too dry for you, this might strike the perfect balance of fact and fiction.

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