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 war zone 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 the enemy - 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 what kind of 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 totally 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.
MARTIN: What did you get out of writing, do you think?
WALLACE: I mean, some - I kind of got like a 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 was 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 war zone.
MARTIN: ...in a war zone, 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 WFSS in Fayetteville.