Vet writes to change conversation
by David Amato
Aug 07, 2014 | 6395 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Brandon Willitts at Mellow Pages bookstore in Brooklyn, NY.  
Photo by Jessica Bal/
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MARLBORO—In the company of history, Brandon Willitts, 31, stood among many when he enrolled at Marlboro College in the autumn of 2009. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served in the Navy in 2004 and 2005, he had come to a college whose founding in 1946 depended heavily on the 1944 GI Bill and whose early success hinged on the work of veterans. But in the company of his peers at Marlboro, eight years after 9/11 and six decades after passage of the first GI Bill, Willitts stood nearly alone. “I was the only veteran on campus for a while,” he says, “and one of the first post-9/11 veterans at Marlboro.”

After graduating from Marlboro in 2012, Willitts worked a summer at Joshua Tree National Park before landing a job in New York at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). In New York, Willitts began to fully recognize his community’s lack of knowledge about veterans’ issues. “People in Brooklyn were detached from the wars,” he says. He and writer Matt Gallagher, who Willitts met at IAVA, hosted a series of writing workshops at Columbia University, but Willitts still felt that something was still lacking. “When you put like-minded people in a room with similar experiences, it can be kind of an echo chamber.”

The gulf between civilian and serviceman served as a catalyst for the founding of Words After War, a literary organization based in Brooklyn, NY, by Willitts and co-founder Michael McGrath in 2013. Words After War seeks, according to its mission, “to change the national conversation around veterans’ issues by including civilians in that conversation” and to “provide veterans and civilians with opportunities to engage with conflict and war through the lens of literature.” Its mission is not political, says Willitts. “It’s artistic.”

Words After War is not the only organization of its kind, but it is the only war-oriented literary organization in New York to bring civilians into the fold. Similar organizations, according to Willitts, tend to either work exclusively with veterans, have an orientation toward therapy, or both.

“The challenge for us has always been to be taken seriously as artists,” says Willitts. “Some people write because they want to make sense of their experiences. They don’t necessarily want awards or money.”

“It’s not the responsibility of civilians to reach out,” he adds. Rather, understanding comes “if we walk toward one another.” Words After War seeks to spur that process along. The organization’s work, in many ways, is a recognition of needs—for community, for visibility, for processing.

Much of its structure comes from Willitts’ experiences as a student at Marlboro. “I learned more about my experience in war and loss from reading books, from studying, from writing, from being part of a community than I did in anything that came before that.”

In workshops throughout New York City, Words After War brings veterans, their families, and civilians together through writing. And this week, Words After War and Marlboro College have teamed up to bring a week of that intensive writing to Windham County, in the form of a weeklong residency at the college’s graduate campus in Brattleboro. It is the organization’s first venture outside of New York City, and its first partnership with another organization. Willitts worked closely with Marlboro faculty and staff—including writing professor and Willitts’ former adviser John Sheehy, Director of Non-Degree Programs Ariel Brooks, and Director of Communications and Marketing Matthew Barone—to bring the work of his organization back to his alma mater.

The intensive’s participants, a mixture of veterans, spouses, and civilians, hail from all over the country. Many come from the South and learned about the experiment through extensive social media outreach from Marlboro and the Words After War blog. “The reach of social media is pretty incredible,” says Sheehy, who is co-facilitating the intensive. “There’s a very small number of people serving in the military. Veterans are likely to run into each other, and we’ve tapped into that.”

“They’re bringing such a depth of experience to the table,” he adds.

Gallagher, as well as writers Jen Percy, Brian Castner, and Maurice Decaul join the intensive for daily writing workshops, readings, and style lessons in Brattleboro. Days begin with a style workshop facilitated by Sheehy and are followed by a literary discussion led by one of the visiting writers. The afternoon is anchored by a writing workshop and a reading, also by a visiting writer.

“Most writers, when they start out, have a hard time thinking that it’s something real to do with your time,” says Sheehy, a contributor to the Good Men Project. Visiting writers “show them that it’s not a pipe dream, that it’s something real to do with your time.”

The intensive is “in line with the Marlboro ethos,” he says. “A lot of these people want to call me ‘sir.’ That’s a negotiation that I’m not used to” at a college where all faculty are on a first-name basis with their students. Willitts and Sheehy carefully refer not to “students,” but to “participants,” a shift that occurred early in the week.

The week’s work will culminate on Thursday with a public reading at the Marlboro College Graduate School, located at 28 Vernon Street in Brattleboro, at 7 pm.
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