Archive | Honor the fallen

Weekly Round-Up: “Class Dismissed” Edition

d day

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “Class Dismissed” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

Summer has arrived in Maine. Lobsters, black flies, swaths and rolls of freshly burnt flesh. The state bird is the black-capped chickadee, but it should be a wiry guy with a black-capped chickadee tattoo on his prematurely wrinkled bicep, smoking a Red at the beach.

‘Tis the season for home improvements. Weedwhackers, window boxes, rubbing rust off the barbecue. Last week I built a desk. Well, I bought two paint splattered sawhorses at a yard sale and a door at the Habitat for Humanity store. My laptop power cord and a lamp’s wire snake through the hole where the doorknob should go.

Recent reading includes Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Lost for Words, a satirical look at literary society. The release has been marked by significant media attention, including a profile in The New Yorker and a Fresh Air interview. The Patrick Melrose series, Aubyn’s cycle of five autobiographical novels, has been my go-to recommendation for the past year or so. I describe it as “evil Wodehouse.” Reductive, but it usually piques an interest. Aubyn’s sentences are chewy. The language is elegant and sharp, like the Dowager Countess if the Dowager Countess was a former heroin addict.

Americans don’t like to write about class, even after the economic upheaval of ’08 and the subsequent lopsided recovery. It can be jarring and off-putting to encounter a writer who does tackle this subject matter and in a way that doesn’t always garner sympathy.

Here’s to a summer of writing bouts marked by exorcised personal and societal demons.

Your seven links:

1. Eliot Ackerman on Bowe Bergdahl for The New Republic.

2. Finishing a story? A poem? A collection? Here are a few places to submit.

3. This week the nation was reminded of the inspiring heroics and selfless acts of those who landed in Normandy 70 years ago. Here is video of General Eisenhower’s D-Day message.

4. The expansive William T. Vollman on recent war fiction.

5. Ernest Hemingway’s son spent a good chunk of his turbulent life living in a Missoula, MO motel.

6. What would you pay for a postcard from David Foster Wallace?

7. A graphic review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams in The Daily Beast.

Have a great week.


Weekly Round-Up: Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Photo Credit: Carry The Load

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “Memorial Day” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

This week, for Memorial Day, a number of moving essays were written that honored the sacrifice of our nation’s fallen. Let us read these essays and pause for a moment to honor all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of our nation. Let us also honor the sacrifice of those families who will never again be whole. And tomorrow, as we continue on with our day-to-day, let us not forget that we are a country still at war.

Here we go.

  1. Alex Horton has penned an excellent piece for The Daily Beast on the kinds of lives his fallen friends might have lived.
  2. The Los Angeles Review of Books marks Memorial Day with a special series on war literature.
  3. For the New Republic, Elliot Ackerman writes about the “Extraordinary Bravery on the Streets of Fallujah.”
  4. The Washington Post ran a thought-provoking story about three wounded vets who found closure in Afghanistan.
  5. Buzzfeed’s Steve Kandell wrote a poignant essay on his visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, nearly thirteen years after his sister’s death.
  6. In The Daily Beast, vet writer Kate Hoit brings attention to the sacrifice of the nearly 200 women service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  7. For The Wall Street Journal, Phil Klay wrote an op-ed on why the nation needs to treat veterans with respect, not pity.

Have a good week.


Weekly Round-Up: The Wise Family

Wise Brothers

The Wise Brothers

Photo Credit: Washington Post

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “The Wise Family” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.


We watched “The Sands of Iwo Jima” starring John Wayne/…And I thought about that movie, asked if it was that way/ He just shook his head and smiled at me in such a loving way/As he thought about some friends he will never see again/He said ‘I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima’ – “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Drive By Truckers


On December 30th, 2009, I was in a hotel room in San Francisco watching CNN when news of a bombing in Afghanistan ticked across the screen. A few weeks passed before I learned that a good friend from the Navy, Jeremy Wise, had been killed along with several others by a suicide bomber during a CIA operation in northern Afghanistan.

It has been several years since Jeremy died, and in that time Jeremy’s brother Ben tragically died from wounds sustained during combat in Afghanistan. Since then, I have tried desperately to make sense of it all, as well as to understand the weight of the absolute grief that has accompanied it. I mourn deeply for his family, as I do for the families of all those who have given their lives in service of our nation.

Even though I have sat with my feelings for some time, most days I don’t feel closer to knowing how I feel. It is not only in those final moments of his tragic death that have I been so lost, but also in the untold moments of his courageous life that we will never know. The life left un-lived is where the heaviness of my grief begins to feel most burdensome.

The past few weeks have stirred many emotions in the veteran community. The media has focused greatly on the fall of Fallujah, the release of the memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as the premiere of Lone Survivor. Wrapped up in all of this, it seems, have been naïve questions and assertions about whether the staggering loss of military and civilian lives and the destabilization of Iraq’s security somehow serve as evidence that these wars were a colossal mistake. I don’t know if any of that is true.

What I do know to be true is whenever I think of these wars, I think of men like Jeremy and I remember their courage. It is from their courage that I draw my lessons. The willingness to lay down one’s own life so that others might live is all I have every really learned –and probably all that I will every truly know – about war. And, for me, that is enough.

I dedicate this week’s round-up to the memory and courage of Jeremy Wise, Ben Wise, Sean Carson, and to all those who have died in service of our Nation since 9/11. Fair winds and following seas.

Here we go.

1. From the Washington Post comes a difficult but necessary story on the sacrifice of my fallen friend and his family: “One family, two sacrifices: In war, Wise family would pay an awful price

2. Elliot Ackerman, Silver Star recipient and writer, explores the question of whether or not the battles in Iraq were worth it for the New Republic.

3. Gregory D. Johnson examines the national security implications of the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force‘ has had for the United States since 9/11 in BuzzFeed.

4. This story, originally published in May 2013, is a disturbing look at a troubled vet turned bank robber. It’s worth revisiting and another example of BuzzFeed‘s quality journalism. 

5. From the Daily Beast come an essay by Benjamin Busch, veteran, actor and author, and his take on the difference between the facts and fiction in the movie, Lone Survivor.

6. Lea Carpenter reviews Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp for the New York Times.

7. The ‘most interesting man in the world’ is turning his attention to land mine removal, according to this article in The Boston Globe.

Bonus Link: Check out Words After War writing instructor Matt Gallagher discussing Iraq on CBS.

Enjoy the long weekend.


Danger Close: The Long Walk and the Loss of a Fallen Friend

The Long Walk

EOD1 Sean Carson

Brandon Willitts writes about how Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows helped him through the loss of his friend, EOD1 Sean Carson.

Shortly after I moved to New York City, news came that an old Navy buddy, Sean Carson, was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. The loss of Sean seemed to rip a hole right through me, for a lot of reasons really, but mostly because it felt like no matter how far I traveled away from Afghanistan, or how long ago I left that war, it might never leave me.

Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the right moment you most need to read it. I found solace in Brian Castner’s extraordinary memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.

Brian Castner is a former Air Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer – Sean was a Navy EOD technician – and his memoir is a magnificent portrayal of his experiences dealing with the confusion of war, struggles with coming home, and learning how to manage his difficult post-war emotions. The real power of Castner’s writing comes from the raw honesty of his struggles with PTSD – his frustration and confusion were palpable and real for me.

Through his writing, I felt like someone was throwing me a lifeline: the pain he described felt like my own pain, the confusion he described felt like my own confusion. It has become one of the most difficult reads of my life, while also being the most necessary.

After I finished The Long Walk the hole in my heart felt smaller. The loss of every one of my brothers now hurts a little less sharply than before. I might never completely put my war behind me, but somehow knowing that someone else has also struggled with such similar emotions, allows me to feel much less alone.


Will you be in NYC on 11/2? Come to our first public event, “Danger Close: Writers on War” featuring Brian Castner and some of our favorite writers! Information and tickets HERE. Can’t attend but interested in getting involved? Make a tax-deductible donation HERE.



Why I Write


Why I Write


I recently spoke with a veteran who had just finished his final tour in Afghanistan; he was preparing for graduate school and looking forward to a life after the Army. He commented that I’d been over there early on in the war, and I joked that I once felt like I had almost missed it.

As I listened to his stories, I secretly hoped that his words could somehow take me back over there again, maybe collapse the space between the Afghanistan he saw so recently and the one I remembered so distantly. Through his stories, perhaps, I might reclaim the memories that have faded over time. I listened carefully for the Afghanistan I too remembered.

As he talked, my mind drifted to the day that I’d watched the flag-draped coffin of a fallen solider being loaded into the belly of a C-130. I stood in an empty space along the Kandahar flight line, watching the plane taxi down the runway and lift off into a clear morning sky. The plane quickly disappeared over the rugged mountains along the horizon, and soon I felt hollow and helpless. The pain of that dead soldier’s sacrifice was so immediate that it felt heavy and moored within me, like an anchor line had been knotted to my sadness and thrown over the side.

For many years after that day, in my mind, I would return to that empty, hollow place along the flight line and stare out at the distant mountains. The rugged peaks stood far off in the distance, like sentries along the horizon, making everything seem tiny set against them, even a massive C-130 sitting idly along the flight line. And in that hollowness, somehow, it felt like those mountains were holding a falling sky in place, as though the sharp peaks kept all of the more broken parts of the war from crashing down on top of me.

Selfishly I believed the mountains would protect me, that somehow they held every shard of that shattered sky from falling on me. And yet, the sky eventually fell, and I lost two good friends in Afghanistan: Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson.

Years later, I have come to realize that even though I’ve been living my life back home, in the United States, somehow no matter how far I travel away from that time or place in my life, I left a piece of myself in Afghanistan forever. I once heard someone describe depression as the act of holding too tightly to the past, and anxiety as the act of holding too tightly to the future. When I write down everything I remember from my time over there, it’s as though I am closing the door on some of my grief and maybe even on some of the ghosts of my past.

I want to imagine a future where the war no longer sits so prominently in the front of my mind. A future where the grieving for dead comrades feels less immediate in my heart. I want to imagine a future where I have moved forward, let go of the past, and stopped worrying so much about the future.

As a veteran, I believe I write so I can move forward and let go of the past; conversely, I believe I write so I’ll never forget my past. For me, writing is this strange, paradoxical act of remembering something in order to try to decide whether it’s worth forgetting. I write to remember Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson. I write their names down so I will never forget them or what they gave on my behalf. Simultaneously, I write so I am able to move forward with my life, to feel less alone, to feel less hollow along that flight line.

Nothing about my past, the death of friends or the war has ever been easy for me. But I write it all down anyway. Often, after I have written it all down, all of it feels less difficult than it once did. And that is enough for me.

–Brandon Willitts

Register now for our NYC veteran writing workshop led by veteran and writer Matt Gallagher