Uniting through narrative: A vet’s plan to connect with civilians

It was just after sunset on a fall evening in Brooklyn, and Matt Gallagher was mulling a breaking and entering.

The 31-year-old writing instructor and former Army cavalry officer was to lead a class in ten minutes, but the library where he normally taught had been accidentally shuttered for the night.

Moments later, Gallagher was on the shoulders of Marine Corps vet Matt DuPre, struggling through a window left ajar.

“These military guys!” said comic book artist Jess Ruliffson, smiling and shaking her head from the ground below.

Video by Elisabeth Ponsot and Ariel Ritchin.

Successfully indoors, students claimed spots on well-worn couches and folding chairs to discuss a selection of World War II writings.

Gallagher’s weekly workshop is held by Words After War, a literary nonprofit that brings together veterans and civilians for writing instruction in an effort to bridge the gap between the two increasingly separate groups.

In the decade following the Sept. 11 attacks, only about .5 percent of the American population serves in the military, compared to more than 12 percent during World War II.

While the statistical difference is significant, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University Allan Silver said the comparison to World War II does not give a full picture of the contemporary divide.

“Now what you have is a steady flow of veterans in and out,” he said. “There’s no definitive end, no definitive victory in the old sense. Looking ahead and looking behind, the whole meaning of being a veteran has to change.”

In a 2013 essay in the New York Times, retired Army Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry and professor of history David M. Kennedy wrote that “the greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy — it’s the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces.”

It’s this growing gap that inspired Brandon Willitts to start Words After War last year.

Willitts joined the Navy when he was 18 and served for more than four years as an intelligence analyst. Upon returning, he later moved to Vermont to attend Marlboro College.

“I saw a lot of really, really smart people on my college campus who were otherwise disengaged from what was happening overseas,” he said. “It wasn’t because they weren’t interested. It was because we just didn’t know how to meet them halfway on some of this stuff.”

Willitts said he hopes the workshops serve as a space for civilians to learn about what it’s like to be a veteran in the 21st century, and that barriers — real or perceived — will break down naturally as students share their views and critique one another’s work.

“I think there’s something to be said about empowering civilians,” he said. “Here we are, veterans, the authorities on this subject, giving you agency and authority to be on a level playing field with us.”

Emily Sogn, a PhD candidate in anthropology who joined the workshop last spring, said the simple act of putting veterans and civilians in a room together can be meaningful.

“I teach freshman and they are a generation of people who have lived more than half of their lives at war, and yet they generally don’t know much about the wars or the military,” she said.

“Academics, writers and vets don’t always naturally mix in the day-to-day. A place that’s facilitated to make these encounters respectful and pleasant — that’s a really important space to create.”

For Gallagher, whose own memoir about his tour in Iraq was published in 2010, the workshop brings together vets and civilians around an issue that neither may believe unites them: war itself.

“These wars belong to everyone,” he said. “We wore the American flag every day over there to represent everyone. You’re a part of this as much as I am.”