A Single Mother Prepares for War

Desma started training with the infantry regiment’s 293rd Alpha Company in October 2007. The 293rd was based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, way up north at the opposite end of the state from where she lived, and she did not know the soldiers in that regiment. The men who served in the 293rd were also National Guard, and also belonged to the 76th Brigade, but they were infantrymen. They dismissed soldiers who served in support positions and never left the safety of the military post as “Fobbits,” from the acronym for forward operating base, or FOB. (“A Fobbit never leaves the wire,” the saying went—it was a play on the line “A hobbit never leaves the shire.”) They were better, they thought. The soldiers in the 293rd trained harder than other Guard units; they took special classes in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. They had been to Iraq once already, four years earlier, when they had become the first Army National Guard battalion to see combat since the Korean War.

“There was a lot of animosity,” she would say later. Most of the men who were serving in the 293rd had never served alongside women. Recent changes in policy allowed female soldiers to be transferred into formerly all-male regiments such as theirs, if the regiments were being deployed in a noncombat role (in this case, the 293rd was providing security to supply convoys). In October, during the first training session that she completed with the 293rd, Desma traveled to Camp Grayling, in Michigan, where she found herself part of Alpha Company, a group that consisted of about one hundred men and only a couple of women. Similar ratios prevailed in the regiment’s other companies. The men made it abundantly clear that they had preferred being an all-male group.

“They wanted to push the women out, because women meant nothing but trouble.”

One day, after they boarded a truck to ride back to the barracks, Desma asked the other soldiers if they had gathered up the targets they had shot. Nobody answered. She turned to a male specialist and said, “Ask them if they gathered up the targets.” He repeated the question, and the men said they had. She was being shunned. Later she learned that the soldiers had been instructed to keep their distance from the female soldiers. They are not your friends, their squad leaders had supposedly told them. Don’t talk to them, don’t socialize with them. She rode in silence from the range to the barracks. When her squad leader ordered the soldiers to shower and report back in two hours, she started walking the wrong way.A few leaders in the 293rd treated her in a friendly fashion—among them a meticulous, thoughtful noncommissioned officer named Roy Dishner, who served as Desma’s squad leader—but the rank-and-file soldiers were unwelcoming. Male soldiers kept a wide berth around her in the chow line and would not sit with her during meals. Her close friend Stacy Glory had also been attached to the 293rd, but was serving in a different company; when possible, Desma ate with Stacy. Desma had been told she would work in supply. The sergeant in charge of supply sent her down to the range. She was fluent on the military’s complicated logistical software, she was a whiz with radios, and nobody in the 113th would have thought working at the range was a good use of her talents, but she spent her days making sure the infantrymen had enough ammunition and could qualify safely with their weapons.

“Brooks, showers,” ordered the squad leader.

“Bullshit,” she responded.

She stalked over to the command post. “Who is in charge of this motherfucker?” she asked.

“Feathers are ruffled,” remarked one of the company’s leaders.

“Hey, I’m supposed to be working in supply, but you got me doing range control. And I’m working with a bunch of people who won’t speak to me,” she announced.

“How about we have a discussion about how big of an EO complaint I have? And how I’m going to call the IG as soon as I walk out of this room?”

“It’s for your safety and for the safety of my Joes,” responded one of the brass.

Nobody appeared concerned that Desma was accusing the 293rd of violating the army’s equal opportunity standards and threatening to report them to the inspector general’s office, according to her. She did not actually call the inspector general—she decided to wait and see if things got better—but things got worse. Everybody in the 293rd had to pass a weapons qualification test. She went to the range as ordered and fired at the targets in front of her, and afterward she was told that she had not qualified. She had never gotten a perfect score at the range, but she had never failed to qualify. She had already endured a yearlong assignment overseas—which was more than some of the younger guys in the 293rd could say. Failing to qualify wounded her pride. Thinking maybe she was rusty, she returned to the range a second time, and again she was told that she had failed. Four times she tried to qualify, and four times she was rejected. She felt pretty certain that her supposed failures were a lie.

The following morning Desma tried to call her children, but nobody answered the phone at their grandparents’ house. She called the fire department and found the girls there with Dennis. She heard her ex‑husband tell their children that they should go to Aunt Jo’s house. Joanne was his sister; Desma wondered why the girls had to go there. Later that day, she got a phone call from Joanne’s husband, Gary, who let her know that Paula had just died.

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Helen Thorpe is a journalist based in Denver. She has written for The New York Times MagazineNew York magazine, The New YorkerSlate, and Harper's Bazaar, and is the author of Just Like Us.

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