VAIL — On a whim, one of board members of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado invited a group of wounded veterans to the nonprofit’s 2013 annual luncheon. She had no idea the women in uniform would be such a hit.
The women drew such interest and a standing ovation from the audience that the board members thought that the subject of women in the military might be worth investigating.
The Women’s Foundation, a statewide organization that aims to build resources and lead change in order to help women and girls reach their full potential, is involved in a number of advocacy projects for women. They publish research reports that show with data some of the biggest roadblocks women in Colorado face. They raise money and help fund philanthropy projects that empower and aid women and girls. But they had never focused specifically on women in the military.
Fittingly, the foundation connected with author, journalist and former Colorado first lady Helen Thorpe, who just released her newest book, “Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War.” Thorpe will speak at this year’s Foundation luncheon on Friday, along with the three women featured in her book.
“We just got to thinking that the biggest issues named (in our 2013 research report) were some of the biggest ones for women in the military,” said Pam Smith, who is on the foundation’s board of trustees. “(The women in the book) all joined for economic and education opportunity. Once they got in, there were safety issues, and they faced some discrimination. Women in the real world have some of those same challenges, and we were struck by those similarities.”
Thorpe’s talk on Friday will highlight both the opportunities and challenges that military women face. In addition, Cheryl Jensen, of the Vail Veterans Program, will receive the WOW! (Women and Girls Outstanding Work) Award.
We caught up with Thorpe on the heels of her book release to talk about what she discovered during the writing of her book.
Vail Daily: “Soldier Girls” follows the stories of three very different women in the National Guard who end up being called to active duty. Tell us a little more about these women and how you found them.
Helen Thorpe: I was really curious about what it was like to come home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to resume a life in the States. I started interviewing soldiers primarily from the National Guard because I was interested in how they were switching back and forth from civilian life. I came across one young woman, Michelle Fischer, who was a great story teller and had amazing diaries and letters from her friends. I was drawn to her personality and sense of humor.
She introduced me to another friend, Desma, who has faced significant struggles since she’s been home. She’s a single mom and shared with me her therapy notes and medical history in dealing with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
Debbie is an amazing person and one of the first women in her unit at the National Guard. She’s very pro military and finds the deployments thrilling. She kind of adopts Michelle, who does not wear a uniform as easily as Debbie does.
VD: What got you interested in the subject of women in the military?
HT: What interested me was that I didn’t have any connection to it. We were living in a decade with two wars going on simultaneously and found the conflicts hard to follow and hard to understand. I wanted to go back and understand what we had been doing. I’m drawn to subjects where there’s a division in society. (Her first book, “Just Like Us,” is about four girls from Mexico growing up in Colorado.) I thought I might have something to offer here. I thought people might identify with Michelle, who was very left leaning and who voted for Ralph Nader. She’s not who you typically think of when you think of someone in the military.
VD: Your talk at the luncheon will be both about the challenges and opportunities for enlisted women. How does that parallel the work that the Women’s Foundation of Colorado does?
HT: Michelle’s motivation for enlisting was trying to figure out a way out of a life of poverty, and in so many ways this book is about that. Her circumstances were tough. Her mom had been on welfare and in and out of factory jobs. Her dad was in and out of jail. Nobody in her family had been to college, so the book is also about one young woman’s struggle with her circumstances. She realized that dream.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.