A Single Mother Prepares for War

A reminder of the challenges low-income women face when they're deployed

Becoming soldiers again, that was the task. This time they were given almost an entire year to prepare. Desma had been telling her children for months that there might be a deployment coming, but when she said it’s definite and it’s Iraq and it’s happening this year they were shocked. “You’re just going to leave again?” Josh asked in disbelief. “It’s not like I have a choice,” Desma told him. “You’ll understand when you’re older.” That fall, Alexis was going to start second grade, and Paige was going to start fourth grade, while Josh would begin his freshman year of high school. All of them were old enough to anticipate what a year’s absence would be like, and they had three-quarters of a year to fret. The girls grew clingy; Josh kept his distance. He said, “I want to finish high school where I start high school. I’m not going to keep moving around.” Desma said all right, he could stay with his surrogate father Keith in Gentryville during all four years of high school, although it kind of broke her heart. Then she spoke to her cousin Lesley about minding the two girls again. Lesley said she would do it if it was what Desma really needed, but she had a lot going on. Desma understood: it was too hard. So she made other arrangements. Her daughters would stay with their paternal grandparents, who lived close to the girls’ father, down in Spurgeon, Indiana.

It was the same town in which Desma had been raised. The girls’ grandparents lived in a house that Desma remembered being occupied by some boys who used to pick on her when they rode the school bus. Spurgeon was about an hour’s drive from Rockport, where Desma lived, and she had maintained a close connection to her in‑laws even after her divorce from their son, Dennis Brooks. Like everybody in southern Indiana, it sometimes seemed, they had fallen on hard times; her father-in-law, Ray Brooks, had worked for a company that had closed, and had started over with an entry-level job at a furniture factory in Jasper. The girls had a particularly warm and affectionate relationship with their grandmother, Paula Brooks, whom they called Ma‑maw. Desma thought it would be a good arrangement. “She loved the girls,” Desma would recall. “They were her pride and joy, kept her going every day. She never faulted me for our divorce, she loved me very much. And was thankful for the opportunity to spend as much time as she got with the girls.”

Desma had to report to Camp Atterbury for two weeks of training each month in May, June, July, and September 2007. She tried to hang on to her full-time job at the Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children and Youth, but eventually asked for a leave of absence. Her boss said he would keep the job open until she got back, and her coworkers made her a quilt.

After each training session, Desma picked the children up and they all returned to Rockport. With the mandatory trainings taking her away so much, however, she found it hard to care for her children in a consistent fashion, and she did not want to disrupt the children’s schooling by having them switch institutions in the middle of the year. Beginning in August 2007, she sent the children to live with the relatives she had chosen to parent them while she was gone, even though she would not go on active duty status for another four months. “You know, let’s not uproot them in the middle of the school year,” she said later. “Let’s do it at the beginning and start off fresh.” She did not make too much of the transition. “I’ll see you on Friday,” she told the girls casually before turning them over to their grandmother. Same with Josh. “See you at the weekend.” Josh established himself at his father’s house quickly. He had lived there before, and already had friends in the area. But the girls entered a household that was about to be thrown into turmoil. Their grandmother had been experiencing health problems, and within weeks, Paula got a routine scan and unexpectedly learned she had cancer. The girls gleaned that their grandmother was ill after the house filled with worry and they were brought on rushed visits to doctors. In September, while Desma was at Camp Atterbury again, her mother-in-law was briefly hospitalized. Not until the following month, however, shortly before Desma began another two-week training session, did Paula share word of her illness with Desma. She barely had a chance to assimilate the news. The 113th Support Battalion was not being deployed as a coherent entity— instead, individuals from the battalion were being distributed across the rest of the 76th Infantry Brigade, wherever there were empty slots that needed filling—and she had just been told to report for a two-week training session with the 293rd, a previously all-male infantry regiment. She would serve in Iraq alongside a group of men she had never known.The coming deployment pretty much ended Desma’s relationship with Jimmy. He said he had endured one yearlong absence already and would not do it again. If she went to Iraq, she would not find him waiting for her when she got home. Jimmy said she had chosen the military over him. She said that was fine with her, he should not wait. Her lease did not run out until July 2008; she wrote enough checks to cover the rent until then, and gave them to Jimmy to mail as the months went by. She told Jimmy he could stay in the house while she was gone. All she asked was that he look after her dog, Goldie.

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.

“The girls don’t know yet,” he said. “When will you be home?”

“I’ll be home today, as a matter of fact,” Desma told him.

Several weeks later, Desma reported for drill at the 293rd’s regular location, the National Guard armory in Warsaw, Indiana. Warsaw lay at the far northern end of the state, close to Fort Wayne, and it took her five and a half hours to get there. While she was there, she obtained a copy of her weapons qualification results. Every time she had fired a bullet, a computer had recorded her name and her lane and whether that bullet had hit the target. “I qualified four times,” she would say later. “And they were trying to tell me I didn’t qualify at all. I qualified more than my fair share.” It made her livid to discover her true results.At the funeral, Desma’s father-in-law asked her to let the girls stay with him, as planned. That’s what Paula would have wanted, he said. Desma wondered if it was a good idea—she thought maybe she should move the girls to her cousin’s. But it would mean one more upheaval, and her cousin was already overwhelmed, and the girls had suffered a shock at losing their grandmother. This loss was their first experience with death, and it had come just as she was getting ready to leave for Iraq.

Before she left Warsaw, Desma printed out every score she had earned. She was going to need proof of her worth; it was going to be that kind of a deployment.


This post has been adapted from Helen Thorpe's forthcoming book, Soldier Girls.

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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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