“It was like that scene from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where he picks up the soil and kisses it,” says Brandon Willitts, recalling the moment he returned home from Afghanistan in 2005. The first thing Willitts did when he touched down on American soil was spend some time standing alone on the tarmac in Pearl Harbor. The journey home had been lonely. As an intelligence analyst, Willitts handled classified material and therefore had the cargo bay of a C-17 to himself on the twenty-four-hour trip from Kabul to Hawaii via Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Seattle. The solitary experience stuck with him for several years; he describes it as a defining moment of his time in the Navy, amplified by the feeling of arriving to no one, then being told the next day that he would soon be headed back out on another deployment—to Iraq.
When he smiles, Willitts’s boyish face, thinly disguised by the scruff of a full beard and designer glasses, makes him look like an oversized kid stuffed into his best Sunday suit rather than a thirty-year-old veteran of war. His tall frame hints at his past as a SEAL trainee, before a chronic knee injury forced him into a different career as an enlisted intelligence analyst. In that role he served at the Pentagon during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, with an anti-submarine warfare squadron in Hawaii, and as part of counterterror operations in Kandahar, a strategic and symbolically important city in Afghanistan.
His Navy contract was due to expire soon after that last deployment, and when told he was headed to Iraq, he opted not to sign up for an extension, instead leaving the service and taking a very different career path. First, as a newfound civilian, he caught up on a rite of passage delayed: college. He enrolled first at Piedmont Community College near Charlottesville, Virginia, then Marlboro, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, where he studied literature. There, he also developed an interest in writing, which he found to be a helpful way of exploring the isolation and loss he’d experienced.
Willitts’s road since Afghanistan has been a winding one, but it all led to what he now sees as his primary mission: this summer’s launch of his nonprofit Words After War, or as he calls it, “a literary organization that just happens to focus on veterans.”
“I saw a need in the veteran service space for a nonprofit focused less on the therapy value of writing and more on the artistic value of writing,” he says. Words After War isn’t a therapy group, but rather, “a community of people interested in the defining moments of the last decade”—namely, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Willitts sees writing as a chance for self-examination through art, not a replacement for therapy. “It’s less about how writing makes me feel better and more that it makes me a better human being,” he says.
He also sees writing about war as a way of closing the gap that has grown between the armed services and civilians since the military became all-volunteer. Willitts hopes that by giving veterans, their families and interested civilians the chance to share their experiences about writing, the organization can help bridge the divide between those who have served in America’s wars and those disengaged from them.
“For a lot of my friends, my girlfriend, for instance—I was the first post-9/11 veteran she’d ever met,” says Willitts. “I was like a goddamn unicorn to her. She thought it was so strange that I’d been in the military. Not in a pejorative way, but in a fascinated way.”
While Words After War is only just getting off the ground, Willitts’s goals are lofty. He hopes to launch a literary mentoring program that matches veterans with established writers, host retreats for veteran writers to work on creative projects and set up a residency program with various colleges to increase the exposure civilian students have to former service members. Ultimately, he wants to give veterans interested in writing an outlet and opportunity to hone their skills to the point where they are known as seasoned writers who happen to be veterans, rather than veterans interested in writing.
Willitts’s path to founding Words After War began December 18, 2001. It’s the day he enlisted, and the last day he saw his younger sister Ashley alive.
“I joined the Navy in 2001, driven largely by patriotism, military family, etc.,” he explains. “And then I was barely a month in the military and my sister committed suicide.” At sixteen she hanged herself. Willitts had three days to go home to Waldorf, Maryland, for the funeral before returning to basic training. The full impact of her suicide stayed buried within him for years, he says. His commitment to the military, he feels, didn’t allow him to stop and evaluate that loss.
The loss of his sister preceded two deaths of friends from service: Sean Carson, an explosive ordnance disposal technician who was killed in a Blackhawk helicopter crash, and Jeremy Wise, a former Navy SEAL-turned-security contractor who died in the infamous triple-agent suicide bombing dramatized by the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“It took me a really long time to make the connection between my sister’s death, and the emotions I experienced around it, and being
home from war and losing two friends in Afghanistan,” says Willitts. “For some reason I thought they were these two disparate things that had zero connection to one another.”
Willitts himself went through a brief marriage, to a woman he met while stationed in Hawaii, and a prolonged divorce. He and his wife separated within four months and divorced two years to the day of their wedding. “We went down to the courthouse on our second wedding anniversary,” he said. “I honestly got married because I was reaching out for something, some sort of stability. Filling some sort of void in my life. And after that I just drank. I drank for years and years.”
On the Marlboro campus four years after leaving the Navy, he drove drunk down a campus dirt road at forty-five miles per hour, wrapping his F-150 pickup truck around an oak tree. He split the engine block but escaped major injury.
“Had it not been such a big truck I would’ve died that night,” he says. Though he wasn’t seriously injured the accident made him request a yearlong leave of absence from school. “For the first time in my life I was transparent about my drinking.”
He underwent six court-ordered outpatient therapy sessions. Those six mandatory sessions turned into two voluntary years. Newly sober, he also spent a year in an Americorps fellowship doing wildlife habitat restoration, then went back to school. He graduated in 2011 with a degree in literature and appropriately strong opinions about writing. “I believe in clear writing,” he says. “I like short sentences. If you’re going to use a semi-colon you better fucking know how to use it.”
That passion for writing inspired him to start Words After War with Mike McGrath, a former creative writing teacher at the University of Virginia. The two met while Willitts studied at Piedmont before transferring to Marlboro in 2008.
Willitts quickly found that running a nonprofit isn’t easy. He worked eighteen-hour days over the summer designing the website, and spent sleepless nights wondering if anyone would come to their first event in mid-September. While on a shopping trip to Whole Foods he found that he couldn’t breathe; he was having a mild anxiety attack.
In September, Words After War hosted its first workshop for veteran writers at Mellow Pages, a privately-run community library in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Willitts, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has intentionally sought out locations in Brooklyn to attract people interested in writing who might not otherwise come out to a veteran’s group. “We’ve had a lot of support and validation from the Brooklyn literary scene, which was something that we really, really wanted,” Willitts says.
On November 2, the organization held the first in a series of panel discussions entitled “Danger Close: Writers on War.” Held at ACME Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was an unlikely scene for a discussion of veteran affairs. Attendees entered through a loading dock to a two-story space filled with flea market furniture, a menagerie of taxidermy and enough rugs to start an open air market in India. The panelists sat on wooden folding chairs before a curved white wall that looked like it should exist behind a celebrity in some
magazine photo shoot. It probably has—the venue normally hosts events such as the “Girls” second-season launch party.
Willitts was understandably nervous. In conversation the day before, he characterized Words After War as a startup scaling at a fast pace. Almost every chair went claimed—there were about forty or fifty people in attendance—and Willitts estimated about half of those who came had no personal connection to Words After War. The discussion ranged from defecation—“We could tell stories about taking shits in war zones all day,” said moderator Quil Lawrence, NPR’s former Kabul bureau chief—to the divide in understanding that exists between the military and the vast majority of a society that remains disconnected and uninterested in wars its country currently fights.
“I can live in Brooklyn and think about food and art and take your pick on whatever your interest is…and if you never want to think about the war you don’t have to,” said Brian Castner, a former Air Force explosives ordinance disposal officer and author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. “You can be completely divorced from it.”
Castner’s comment gets to the heart of what Willitts hopes to achieve with Words After War. “The real goal is not to be just a veteran writing organization, but to actually be something so big, and the brand to be so impactful [that] we can leverage it to really bridge that civilian-military divide by putting veterans in the classroom,” says Willitts. “Not because they’re vets but because they’re qualified to teach” after learning through a writer-in-residence program set up by Words After War.
Non-veterans are essential to the organization’s mission as well. Former Army lieutenant Matt Gallagher, an instructor for Words After War and author of the Iraq military memoir KaBoom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, talks about the ways one can find understanding of war without directly experiencing it. “It took me a couple years to realize there are many ways you can know a subject. That it transcends personal experience.” Gallagher notes that, “For my money the best American war novel is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage.” Crane, an American journalist, was famously born six years after the Civil War but wrote about the experience so realistically that people mistook him for a veteran.
Now that several programs have been put in place, Willitts continues to direct the nonprofit on a part-time basis, and recently accepted a full-time job in military and veterans outreach for a private company in New York City. The work he does on behalf of veterans, both in his day job and through Words After War, has helped him come to terms with the cynicism he felt for several years after leaving the Navy.
“I’m a lot more proud of what I did in Afghanistan,” he says. Years of reading and writing short fiction have helped him understand the feelings of loss, isolation and loneliness he felt when he left service.
After the discussion, the panelists and Willitts ate dinner at a nearby Williamsburg beer hall, where they enjoyed Brooklyn’s take on German food and debated which famous authors saw the heaviest combat. The consensus: Salinger, who carried pages of Catcher in the Rye with him on Omaha Beach during World War II, along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien during World War I. A waitress served stein-sized mugs of beer to the banquet-hall length table while Willitts drank water.
“I’m happy that shit is falling into place,” says Willitts. “It was a real make-or-break moment for a few months.”
* * *
Colin Wilhelm is a freelance writer and Columbia Journalism School student. You can follow him on Twitter @colinwilhelm.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.