Military Reads

June was Military Month when it comes to my reading habits: one book on military science, one book written by a physical therapist at Walter Reed, one book about women in the military.

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Timely, according to the articles in my Facebook feed about the possibility of requiring women to register for the draft now that combat positions are open to women. For the record–I’m not opposed to being drafted. I don’t particularly want to go to war, but I doubt many of my male friends do, either, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t do my part if it’s needed. (I did, however, look up what would happen if I got drafted, since I have dual citizenship. Turns out that there’s a nice little loophole that as long as my two countries aren’t at war with each other, and I’m drafted and don’t voluntarily enlist, I can keep both nationalities. Good to know. (Please stay friends, guys.) I also learned that I can’t, however, serve as a military chaplain–single citizenship is a requirement there.)

Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center, by Adele Levine. 

Levine works as a physical therapist at Walter Reed, working with soldiers who have undergone amputations. It’s hard work, and a hard world: all-consuming, painful, but with a surprising amount of humor too. Most of the book tells the stories of the soldiers who come to her for rehabilitation, but she also writes about how she got into the work and what it does to her and to her co-workers to see the effects of the war on a daily basis. Recommended if you’re interested in the human cost of war. (Levine writes about the prices soldiers pay for policy decisions made by mostly white men in Washington DC, but doesn’t go into politics itself, so this book is suitable for both sides of the aisle in that sense.)

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach.

I love Mary Roach. I’ve read all but one of her books, and I love her irreverent approach to life and science and the wacky questions she comes up with that end up being super interesting. And she knows how to write for those of us who aren’t particularly science-minded or didn’t take a lot of science classes in school. As Goodreads says, “Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them.” Roach tackles the varied topics of hearing loss, heat, exhaustion, proper clothing, fear, submarines, ducks, and stink bombs.

Roach is famously funny and irreverent, and I will say that she tries very hard to find the humor in a lot of situations, but doesn’t become disrespectful–she is writing about the military, after all, and people willing to risk their lives for other people’s safety. I think she’s conscious of that and tries to stay on the right side of that particular line. You can judge for yourself how well she succeeds.

A couple of reviewers on Goodreads and Amazons remarked that the book seems a little disjointed, and I’d have to agree with that. It’s still worth your time, especially if you’re a Roach fan, but if you’re new to her work, I’d pick up one of her other ones first to get an idea of her style. (Try Packing for Mars, for example, I liked that one a lot.)

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

This was the most heart-breaking book of the three. Thorpe writes about three women who joined the Indiana National Guard and were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. She talks about their time overseas, but also what happens when they come back after their first or second deployment, what happens to their families, and how they try to adjust back to civilian life. Embedded in a military that is inherently  male in nature, these women try to navigate their way through boot camp and training, drill weekends and deployment. Thorpe follows them for more than twelve years, and this longer-term view makes for a particularly interesting narrative.

Michelle is a student who enlisted in the National Guard because she needed money for college–and then 9/11 happened and suddenly she was sent overseas. Debbie is a beauty salon manager and has been in the Guard since the 1980s, serving as a kind of den mother to the soldiers. The Guard means community to her, more than anything else. And then there’s Desma, who signed up on a dare and ending up needing both the camaraderie and the steady paychecks to support her family. A New York Times piece about the book says that Thorpe “gives us a dynamic understanding of what it’s been like for Guard members who unexpectedly found themselves shipped off to the front lines of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their lives and plans disrupted, their families thrown into disarray. She chronicles how these once ordinary civilians were abruptly transformed into full-time soldiers, and how they coped with the boredom and isolation and terror of serving in places where land mines and I.E.D.’s and roadside bombs were a constant threat.” This is also a good book to read if you’re interested about the support work that goes on during a deployment–one of the women works in the motor pool, while the other two are a part of the armament team and spend their time repairing and keeping track of deadly weapons. None are meant to see combat, but of course those lines aren’t as clear overseas and eventually one of them will even encounter an IED and will later be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. This was an interesting book to read given the debates over women in combat, as it showed how women are sometimes already on the front lines, how gender comes into play while deployed, and what a female draft could mean for those left behind.

Main take-away from all three books? There is no good excuse for not taking care of those we ask to fight for us. Whether it’s before, during, or after deployment, there are about a million different ways in which we are letting soldiers down. I don’t know what to do about that, honestly, so if you have resources or further book recommendations for me, let me know!

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