A Place for Both the Pen and the Sword

Roger Butts and John Barbato, University of Maryland University College professors, teach in Afghanistan.
Roger Butts and John Barbato, University of Maryland University College professors, teach in Afghanistan. "It stays with you," Barbato said. (Courtesy Of Jackie Brunson And Rebecca Biafo)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

During training for deployment, people asked professor John Barbato whether he is right- or left-handed. Then they said, "Search for mines with your left hand so you can still grade papers."

They were joking. He thinks.

Barbato has a strange, sometimes surreal, job; he and a few other University of Maryland University College professors are teaching this spring on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. It is an odd sort of ivory tower for them, a makeshift college campus walled off from most of the danger around them.

It is a lot safer, Barbato's colleague Hernando Dominguez said only half-jokingly, than the time he went to Baltimore and got lost. The professors are well protected, and they rarely leave the security of the base.

"You forget that you're in a war zone," said Dominguez's wife, Army Capt. Carol Calix.

But there is a reason the university calls the teaching assignment "deployment" and the military slang for such locations is "downrange": That is where the missile heads after launch.

Every once in a while, something reminds them.

There are UMUC professors in Kabul, Kandahar and Camp Salerno, near the border with Pakistan, as well as Bagram air base. The school has been teaching overseas for more than 50 years, on more than 125 bases. No public school offers more online classes to the military; last year, tens of thousands of service members enrolled. UMUC hopes to eventually offer classes in Iraq, not just online.

There is more demand than can be met by the classes in Afghanistan, with a handful of professors and thousands of troops in the country. Some of the students joined the military to earn money for an education. Some see the classes as their chance for a better life. And some enroll for a respite from the fear and exhaustion of service.

The professors could be anywhere besides the stretch of desert ringed by mountains north of Kabul. They don't have to be there, teaching in chapels, in courtrooms and in other camps, living in eight-person rooms partitioned with scavenged scraps of plywood. They offered to teach downrange for the adventure or the hazard pay (a 25 percent bump) or a sense of patriotism.

"This is what I can do" for the troops, said Gae Holladay, who teaches English, "to let them know we appreciate what they're doing, and the sacrifices they're making."

Or for love: Dominguez volunteered so he could be with his wife, a preventive medicine officer who was deployed to Afghanistan last year.

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