Flight to Salerno: A Teacher’s Notes

Christine Dumaine Leche, editor of Outside the Wire: American Soldiers’ Voices from Afghanistan, appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition to describe the creative writing class she taught in occupied Afghanistan and her amazing students, all of whom were American soldiers. You may listen to the interview here. In the following piece, “Flight to Salerno,” Leche takes us behind the scenes of this powerful new book. The trying journey described here is only the beginning of military life in Afghanistan.

I had been on FOB (forward operating base) Salerno a week. Until then, I had been teaching most of my classes—English, Creative Writing, and Speech—to Army, Marine, and Air Force soldiers, and even a few Navy seamen, on Bagram Airbase. But soldiers on remote FOBs need a diversion, and want a chance to earn some college hours while deployed, too, so I had volunteered and now sat slouched in a metal folding chair in the freezing, cement-floored Bagram PAX terminal all night with seventy or so ragged, exhausted, depressed soldiers waiting for connecting flights on a helicopter, Cessna, or C-130, we never knew which, to remote FOBs. We snacked on potato chips and pasty chocolate chip cookies from vending machines while late ‘90s movies threw flickers of light in our faces. The actors’ voices were hollowed into garble by the metal roof and cement floor of the terminal, but the mouths, eyes, and hands continued gesticulating, and a fair number of us, glazed by the need for sleep, watched on.

When my name was finally called, I dragged my green sausage of a duffle bag to the back of the line behind a couple of corporals built like defensive linemen. We were led a block or so onto the flight line, then to the doorway of a six-seater Cessna. Each of us was scared, cold, and alone, and weighed down by a 30-pound camouflaged flak vest and Kevlar helmet. I hoisted myself up onto the single step and bent forward through the low metal doorway. The three of us crammed into undersized seats made smaller by our awkward flak vests, and through windows the size of dinner plates we watched an F-15 fighter rip down the gray, parallel runway only a few feet from us. Then a C-130 lumbered along behind it like a slug. It hummed that low, deep-throated groan—uummmm—the misery music that permeates Bagram Airbase twenty-four hours a day. Another instant, and the F-15 broke the sound barrier with that symbol of American might, a deafening, vibrating thud. I wondered where the bombs were headed.

On our Cessna’s steep “combat” takeoff, I thought about the nineteen- or twenty-year-old Private on the metal chair in front of me back in the PAX Terminal. He had been bent forward, one elbow on a knee, curled as if staring at a meaningless speck on the cement floor. He rocked just a little in his chair. His hair was that kind of clumped dirty that comes from having slept outside in the open, from sweat and wind. He combed his fingers through it, forehead to crown, in quick strokes, back and forth. Somebody’s son. He was bent over himself, elbows to knees–as if there was a thought he could not take. Something was wrong, real wrong. He had lost a parent, or his wife back in the states had cheated on him or spent all their money, or he was going to the Korengal Valley to a FOB so remote he would have to burn his own excrement, sleep covered in fleas, dodge tarantulas, and might die. Could very well die.

From the sky, Afghanistan is at peace. As the Cessna climbed its steep slope, Bagram’s cement runway became a hyphen in the dust. Soon the world below was a beige-toned infinity punctuated by clusters of mud-brick walls. Villages like tic-tac-toe boards drawn out on the earth, each mud square with a mud house huddled in a corner. After ten minutes or so the view became more rugged. If the earth’s crust had once been a primordial sea, here its hurricane-force waves had frozen into dirt. The infantry soldier across from me was raised on an Iowa farm, just touched down in-country the day before and said he was scared as hell of all planes never mind one the size of a tuna can. He kept tapping the butt of his M-16 on the metal floor and sighing. He was maybe twenty and flinched each time we hit an air pocket. The back of the pilot was only a couple feet in front of us. Inches in front of him came the dials the size of wristwatch faces that held our lives in the balance of their trembling arrows. Twenty minutes later we were crossing the snow-covered Hindu Kush, a field of chiseled daggers as far as the eye can see. The Cessna flew low, meandered between gray spikes draped in snow. Soon we were humming our way over foothills. Then the pilot pointed the plane nose down toward the gravel runway and took us combat-fast into Salerno.

I knew I had my work cut out for me. I caught a ride to my sleeping quarters with a couple of soldiers in a Humvee, dumped the personal stuff, then reported to the education building, a three-room bunker. I set up a table in front of the AFES (military) store that sold pillows and souvenir beer mugs, CDs, and Doritos, so I could first capture people’s attention and, I hoped, register some students, since none had yet signed up for either of my courses. I unpacked the enticement to earn some college credit: free pens and key chains with the university’s white-on-navy logo. There were stacks of catalogues and registration forms. I had brought along an Army green foot locker of English 101 and Library Skills textbooks. By noon I had registered fourteen soldiers. Class would begin in a small room built as a bunker at 1800.

Outside the Wire: American Soliders’ Voices from Afghanistan is available now.