While serving in the US Army in Afghanistan, you are one of the leaders of a nightly convoy of trucks between two facilities. At the last minute, a soldier asks if he can fill an empty seat so he can catch a ride. You let him come along. On the trip, your convoy it hit by IEDs. That young man you let catch a ride...he is dead. Although life in a war zone is deadly, it is still mentally jarring when non-combat activities are just as likely a target as an infantry unit. And that is part of the reality for women in the US military. The female convoy leader was in a non-combat role and yet still very much in harm's way.
Undaunted: The Real Story of America's Servicewomen in Today's Military by Tanya Biank tells us about the lives of four servicewomen in the US military. Biank chronicles their life and career events from 2006 through 2011 and provides some backstory of how each of the women ended up where they are. The book shifts back and forth between the women, following their lives in sections broken down by years.
Brigadier General Angela Salinas became the first female to have command of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. That facility trains all male Marine recruits located west of the Mississippi River. With that command, she was doing something that some in the rigidly traditional Marine Corps swore should never happen. Biank writes Salinas's story in a way that you see the environment she was in, but you see how the general faced the challenge.
The youngest of the women featured in Undaunted is Second Lieutenant Bergan Flanagan. We first meet her when she was a cadet at a Northeastern military college. She was brimming with assertiveness, duty, and patriotism. Flanagan marries her sweetheart soldier boyfriend and goes on to serve in Afghanistan with him.
Undaunted is able to cover several key areas of interest of women serving in the military thanks to the diverse situations of the four women profiled. Along with women pioneering into new positions of responsibility, we see the stress of a married couple deployed separately or together, couples dealing with PTSD, women balancing feminine traits with physical performance and appearance standards long accepted for men in the military, and a little glimpse at the sexual fallout of men and women serving side by side in war. There were times where I could see the writing on the wall for one of these women and their families and it still stung me upon reading where the situation finally is recognized by those involved.
Tanya Biank is first and foremost a feature journalist and not a novelist. Undaunted reads as a really, really long profile piece for Vanity Fair, GQ, or Rolling Stone. Biank writes paragraph upon paragraph of observations of her subjects and how their personalities are displayed in their actions. These are character sketches, so don't expect a thread connecting these women and their life stories as you make your way through the book. While it took me a while to get reacquainted with each woman as the chapters shifted between each, I enjoyed the read enough that I considered it a pleasant read. Then, about two thirds of the way through the book...BAM! All sorts of stuff starts happening. The slow, steady description and anecdotes that got me this far suddenly shifts tempo as one of the soldiers finds herself in harms way. From there to the end, I was compelled to feed my curiosity of what was to happen next.
For women considering joining the military or parents of a daughter interested in joining, I highly recommend that you read a copy of Undaunted. Generally speaking, I found the book to be a worthwhile read. This book shows you the reality for these four women and their families. While Salinas is in an exceptional role, the other three women are just regular GI Janes. If you need a plot to drive your reading, this book will probably lose you after a few chapters.