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‘The other one percent’: Bridging the military-civilian divide in Brooklyn

Tuesday is Veterans Day -- a day to honor those who have served. But since the draft ended in 1973, the number of Americans who serve in the armed forces has decreased dramatically, leading to what some fear is a lack of understanding between our military and civilian populations. Now, a group of young veterans in Brooklyn have devised a program to try to bridge the divide. NewsHour's Elisabeth Ponsot reports.

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  • MATT GALLAGHER:

    Initial reader responses, let's just get that out of our systems before we start talking craft.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    Here in Brooklyn, a group gathers to discuss the Vietnam war novel, Tree of Smoke. But this is no ordinary book club.

    It's a meeting of current and former students of Words After War, a nonprofit that brings veterans and civilians together to discuss military conflict through a literary lens.

    Brandon Willitts, a former intelligence analyst in the Navy, co-founded Words After War last year.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    You were 18 when you enlisted?

  • BRANDON WILLITTS:

    I was. I had just graduated from high school when I enlisted. It was– shortly after 9/11. At the time, you know, there was a real gravity to the situation. And it felt very immediate. And I felt like I had to do something. And that was the only thing I could think of to do was to join the military.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    Willitts deployed overseas in 2004, serving in Afghanistan, Bahrain and Qatar. He returned home in June of 2005.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    After over four years in the Navy, Willitts moved to Vermont to pursue a college degree. But at school, he says, he felt like an outsider.

  • BRANDON WILLITTS:

    I think it's like being a unicorn, what I imagine what being like a unicorn would be is that — they're like, oh that's so interesting but yet we should probably keep our distance because it's so foreign to us and so alien to us. That's what it was like being a veteran on a small, liberal arts campus in New England. Was that, I think people didn't know what to make of me.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    During World War II, more than 12 percent of the American population served in the armed forces. As of 2013, that number stands at less than .5 percent.

  • MATT GALLAGHER:

    There's a joke within the veterans' community that we're the "other one percent." Not the Wall Street barons, but the other one percent of American society.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    Matt Gallagher is a writing instructor at Words After War. At 22, he joined the Army as a cavalry officer and served a 15-month tour in Iraq. His memoir, Kaboom, was published in 2010.

  • MATT GALLAGHER:

    I was a little angry when I first came back. In a way I felt that the military was being used and taken for granted by the broader American society. The WWII generation, both my grandfathers served. They went to war with America. We went to war for America. It's a very subtle but important distinction.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    Gallagher leads the group in discussions about battles contemporary and historic. Students share their opinions about war and critique one anothers' work.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    In case you're wondering what civilians get out of the workshop, they say it gives them a window into what it's like to serve in the 21st century.

  • BRANDON WILLITTS:

    We are in search of writers who are interested in– in having conversations about war and conflict with civilians.

  • ELISABETH PONSOT:

    And what do civilians bring to the table?

  • BRANDON WILLITTS:

    They're coming with the tangible skills. They're coming with words on the page. And the veterans bring the experience. And I think brought– brought together– there's a shared relationship. There's a mentorship that can form.

  • BRANDON WILLITTS:

    For those of us who transitioned out into the civilian world I think it's our responsibility to engage civilians and to let them know about the experiences of combat, of, conflict, of transition.

  • MATT GALLAGHER:

    It's so important that– that– Americans stay engaged and involved– with their military. Like it or not it wasn't just military patches that we wore over there. We wore the American flag. We were representing each and every American citizen.

    If on some small level, the Words After War writing workshop can kind of bridge that divide. Then we're doing our part.

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