Author Interviews
4:28 am
Sun April 7, 2013

Stories Of 'Outside The Wire' Give An Insider's View Of War

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 10:08 am

In some ways, it was like any other writing class: backpacks, books, rough drafts, discussions about literature. But instructor Christine Dumaine Leche and her students weren't sitting in a college classroom or a community center — they were on an air base in Afghanistan and the students usually came to class after long days in a war zone. Leche was teaching them to translate their experiences — the danger, the boredom, the painful separation from their families, the fear and the hatred — into prose.

Out of that classroom came dozens of intimate narratives of life as a soldier, including an essay by Sgt. 1st Class Billy Wallace about a previous deployment to Iraq. It contains this scene of him leaving home for that tour:

The dreaded time had come. Time to walk the family to the truck and say goodbye. My wife, Stefanie, and I walked hand in hand. She was squeezing my hand pretty hard. The walk to the truck seemed like the "green mile." I picked up my two youngest, Devon and Caleb.

"Where are you going, Daddy?" asked Caleb.

"I'm going to Iraq to make it a better place."

Then he plunged his fist, a pretend dagger, into my heart. My oldest, Austin, assured me he would be the man of the house.

Then Caleb piped up again, "Are you going to die in Iraq, Daddy?" Before I could answer he started crying as if he had broken his leg — long, deep guttural screams.

Devon, who has Down syndrome and is a total daddy's boy, said, "Daddy, no die please."

Wallace's essay, as well as 37 other soldiers' narratives, are part of a new book Leche has edited called Outside the Wire: American Soldiers' Voices from Afghanistan. She and Wallace join NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss writing during war, the therapeutic value of Leche's course and how Wallace's essay helped him talk to his family about his experience.


Interview Highlights

On teaching and attending a writing class in the middle of a war zone

Leche: "Most of my students were on patrol during the day, and they would come to class just ready to go. They looked forward to being outside of that military world, so this was their time. We had terrific discussions about literature. I would have them read, for example, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and they realized that they were living all the elements of fiction — only this was reality; only they had a lot at stake in the moment."

Wallace: "[The mental shift] was pretty easy because, you know, once we walked into the door, it was like all the fears and the worries and the stuff that we had gone through that day just kind of evaporated for a little bit. And once we got in there, it was like, wow, this is kind of like a burden, you know, lifted off our shoulders."

On the value of writing about wartime experiences

Wallace: "I kind of got a little bit of therapy out of it, to be honest, because part of the writing that is in this book about my Iraq deployment ... was a moment that changed my life forever and, you know, changed a lot of things about my life. And it just — I put it aside and wouldn't talk about it. Didn't talk to anybody, which is what soldiers do. You keep it bottled up inside, which could actually make more of the problems worse. So it was more therapeutic. It allowed me to understand how I could start coping with it and how I could put it into words to where other people could understand it."

On what the class talked about

Leche: "We talked constantly about how to put experience into words, to re-create that experience on the page. That's an important way of communicating what does happen down range ... in a war zone. But the student soldiers would attend class after 18 hours of guard duty. They would be exhausted, but nevertheless they were ready to open that backpack and pull out their English text. ... After cleaning human remains from medevac helicopters; or after washing bodies in the morgue; after having been raped by a fellow soldier in the camp a week earlier; after watching their wives give birth via Skype; and even after working as a nurse with a surgeon who might be trying to save the lives of two young [Afghan] boys. So everyone in that room brought different experiences with them to camp. But we had that great commonality of being present in this space together, and of taking that raw experience and writing it as story, as narrative to convey the instant and to take that back to people who might not otherwise know what it's like for a soldier when he's deployed to a combat area."

On how the essays have helped after returning home from war

Wallace: "My wife didn't know a whole lot about the attack in Karbala [Iraq], but she knew I was wounded. But after writing it, you know, it allowed me to better, I guess you could say, articulate it to her; to where I could kind of dummy-proof it down for her a little bit to where she doesn't have to know everything but at least it gave me an opportunity to kind of talk to her about it so that she felt that she was part of the loop too."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're now going to hear another way some in the military are using their own creativity to understand some very complicated issues. On a small U.S. military outpost along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, 15 soldiers would gather - not to go over operations or to assess supply routes - they got together for a class in creative writing. Their inspiration in the warzone came fast and fierce.

SERGEANT FIRST CLASS BILLY WALLACE: (Reading) I hated them more than anyone could hate. My unit leadership kept me inside the forward operating base. They would no longer allow me to go on patrols. They knew I had a personal mission. I would get even. So what if it landed me in prison for the rest of my life? Then one day a thought hit me like a city bus hitting a pedestrian who is not paying attention. We do the same thing to enemies - we assault and kill them. I have made a family mourn over losing a child, brother or husband. I ask myself, are we better than they? No, we are not. We are one in the same, just separated by different belief systems. This realization allowed me to stop hating, the heaviness in my heart lifted.

MARTIN: That was Sergeant First Class Billy Wallace reading an essay he wrote in that class about a firefight that happened when he was deployed in Iraq in 2007. He was one of 15 students in the class in Afghanistan, taught by Christine Dumaine Leche. She has compiled their work into a new collection called "Outside the Wire." I recently spoke with Sergeant Wallace and Christine Dumaine Leche, who described the makeshift classroom where she and her students would meet.

CHRISTINE DUMAINE LECHE: The classroom was built as a bunker. And we were actually located just inside the perimeter of the camp. But we felt that inside the boundaries of that classroom we were very safe.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about a kind of what a day in the life would be like? I mean, where were your students coming from in the course of a day? What were they leaving outside the classroom when they entered those walls and were trying to think about creative writing?

LECHE: Most of my students are on patrol during the day. And they would come to class just ready to go. They looked forward to being outside of that military world. And they realize that they were living all the elements of fiction. Only this was reality. Only they had a lot at stake in the moment.

MARTIN: I'd like to bring Sergeant Wallace into the conversation. Billy, what would happen when you would walk into that classroom? What kind of mental shift did you have to make? Or was it really easy?

WALLACE: Actually, it was pretty easy because, you know, once we walked into the door, it was, like, woof, all the fears and the worries and the stuff that we had gone through that day just kind of evaporated for a little bit. And once we got in there, it was like, wow, it's just kind of like a burden, you know, lifted off our shoulders.

MARTIN: At the same time, you end up spending a lot of those moments in class really thinking deeply about certain aspects of your life in the military. And you have an essay in this book about the moments right before you deployed. I wonder if you could read a little bit of that to us.

WALLACE: Sure. (Reading) The dreaded time had come. Time to walk the family to the truck and say goodbye. I picked up my two youngest sons, Devon and Caleb. Where are you going, Daddy, Caleb asked. I'm going to Iraq to make it a better place. Then he plunged his fist, a pretend dagger, into my heart. My oldest, Austin, assured me that he'd be the man of the house. Then Caleb piped up again: Are you going to die in Iraq, Daddy? Devon, who has Down syndrome and is a total daddy's boy, said, Daddy, no die, please.

MARTIN: So, we should say that that was an essay you wrote while in Afghanistan but it was about a previous deployment to Iraq.

WALLACE: Yes.

MARTIN: What did you get out of writing, do you think?

WALLACE: I mean, some - I kind of got, like, the little bit of therapy out of it, to be honest 'cause part of the writing that is in this book about my Iraq deployment was something that, you know, it was a moment that changed my life forever and, you know, changed a lot of things about my life. And it just - I put it aside and wouldn't talk about it, didn't talk to anybody, what soldiers do, we keep it bottled up inside. Which actually made more of the problems worse. So, it was more therapeutic and it allowed me to understand how I could, you know, start coping with it and how I could put it into words to where other people could understand it. And, you know, my wife didn't know a whole lot about, you know, the attack in Karbala. But she knew I was wounded. But after writing it, you know, it allowed me to better, I guess you could say, articulate it to her to where I could kind of dummy-proof it down for her a little bit to where she doesn't have to know everything. But at least it gave me an opportunity to kind of talk to her about it so that she felt like she was part of the loop, too.

MARTIN: Chris, how much of your time in the classroom spent actually talking about story structure and how to write a compelling tale, how to be a good writer? And how much of the class was just about providing a safe space where these people could process some of what had happened to them?

LECHE: Actually, we talked constantly about how to put experience into words to recreate that experience on the page. That's an important way of communicating what does happen downrange.

MARTIN: Downrange is a military term for in the field...

LECHE: Downrange is in a warzone.

MARTIN: ...in the warzone, yes.

LECHE: Yes. But the student soldiers would attend class after 18 hours of guard duty. They would be exhausted. But nevertheless, they were ready to open that backpack and pull out their English text or after cleaning human remains from medevac helicopters or after washing bodies in the morgue, after having been raped by a fellow soldier in the camp a week earlier, after watching their wives give birth via Skype. So, everyone in that room brought different experiences with them to camp. But we had that great commonality of being present in this space together and of taking that raw experience back to people who might not otherwise know what it's like for a soldier when he's deployed to a combat area.

MARTIN: Christine Leche is the editor of a new book called "Outside the Wire: American Soldiers' Voices from Afghanistan." She joined us from member station KUT in Austin. We were also joined by Sergeant First Class Billy Wallace from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Thanks to both of you very much.

LECHE: Thank you.

WALLACE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And thanks also to member station WFSF in Fayetteville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.