GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, transforming the wardrobe of war into art.
In 2007, a returning Iraq war veteran trying to make sense of his experience cut up his battle dress uniform and, together with a friend, made paper from the fibers. The Combat Paper Project was born. Five years later, in New Jersey, the project has launched a permanent workshop for veterans hoping to reconcile the good and bad of lives spent at war.
We met four of them. Here are their stories in their own words.
DAVID KEEFE, Combat Paper Project: It’s about making the paper. It’s about sharing stories and making the art.
I was shocked when I first heard about this program. A friend of mine said you have got to check out this program called combat paper. It’s a traveling workshop that has been going around the country. They cut up uniforms and make paper out of them.
My name is David Keefe. I’m the director of the Combat Paper program here in New Jersey. I was a Marine. I was a scout that patrolled the Euphrates River from 2006 to 2007.
The — coming home from any war, it is very hard to share your experiences to families and friends, to — within your community. You hold back. You suppress them. We provide a community that’s veterans talking with other veterans. And we have a unique way of transforming the experiences.
They want to be able to feel whole in a community. And to take a uniform, to cut it up, reconstitute it, make it into pulp, make it into paper, and eventually put art on top of it so they can hang it on the wall or give it away, that is the platform that allows the veteran to feel confident and comfortable communicating to their friends and family.
We like to say that’s bridging the gap. The first step is, we cut up this uniform. So we have to get it down to a postage stamp size. So down here is our wet room. So this is where we have our beater. Go right in here. We have a uniform from the first part of the Iraq war.
We have old — there’s the new army digital pattern is in here. After it runs through the beater for a few hours, this is what comes out, and this is all that uniform broken down into pulp.
And now we want to reclaim those experiences by re — by making them into something new, something different. And it’s paper.
Press, and there’s your paper.
One of — the silk screen of the boy, myself and the boy, that’s comes from a direct photo taken of me with this little boy named Rasul who I’ll never forget. He was this little kid that I had met on a patrol. But I couldn’t get over the fact at how much I looked like an alien to him, in this big monster with all this gear on me.
I remember going back to that same area a few times and seeing the same family just around. And then I remember, one time I went back and they were completely gone, and that weighs on me. You know, I do see his face a lot in dreams. When I look at my own son, I see his face a lot.
ELI WRIGHT, Combat Paper Project: I was still in the army when the Combat Paper Project began. What I found with this is that it allowed me to turn off the chaos a little bit, and to just kind of lose myself in the process.
My name is Eli Wright. I served in the Army from — I enlisted shortly after 9/11 and I served until 2008. I was a combat medic, served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
It’s very much a release. You know, the first time I started doing it, I felt like I was just letting off the pressure. You know, I felt like there had been all this pressure building up and I had nowhere to turn and no outlet. And it felt — the first time I started cutting the uniform, I was literally, you know, separating away, tearing away at the fibers of war.
And one of the first pieces I did, which is titled “Open Wound” — and it’s a very simple piece. It was a very dark, black pulp, and then I had a very bright red pulp. And I basically just slammed the red pulp into it, and it created this gaping open wound in the paper. And I felt like I was sort of closing up some of the wounds that I had had. And I was finding release in that and learning to let go of some things.
JAN BARRY, Combat Paper Project: So I couldn’t find any of my uniforms left. So, I’m borrowing someone else’s uniform. And I’m starting to cut into it. And I’m thinking, this is kind of ridiculous, until I really physically get into, like, this really is cutting through a lot of history.
I’m Jan Barry. I served in the Army in Vietnam 1962-1963. We really were proud to wear that uniform with all those things that were on the uniform. And now you’re cutting into it and remixing those memories or those bone-deep sensations.
And at a certain point, the creativity starts flowing in terms of the discussions that are going on. What am I going to do with the paper? So I decided to do a small collection of poetry.
Life after war, it can creep up on you. You came back in pretty good shape, but knew others who died. Write, talk, create art about war, share what’s happening with others. One day, damn, you’re an old-timer who’s lived a lot of life after a war.
DAVID KEEFE: Coming into this atmosphere, I was — I knew I had things inside that I had never talked about, and I was intimidated how vulnerable it would feel to have them come out.
It’s amazing how similar stories from our war are the same as stories from World War II. Chopper went down, Haditha Dam, and there was like six guys that went down and drowned with the chopper. And I remember this one kid that we pulled out, and he was smiling back at me, and I’ll never forget his face.
SARAH MESS, Combat Paper Project: I don’t know how many Sundays I’ve been here. All I know is that from the first Sunday that I came here, since then, I’ve been here every Sunday.
With PTSD, we suffer in silence, kind of like the Grim Reaper, always lurking in the shadows, and you never know when it’s going to pop out and rear its ugly head. My name is Sarah Mess. And I served in the United States Army from 1992 until 2000.
And I served with the 42nd Field Hospital in 1993, during the second rotation in Mogadishu, Somalia. It’s like a — like a letting-go. It’s like shredding the past, I guess, try — attempt to shred the past. So when I’m creating something — which, by the way, I haven’t created anything yet — I have been cutting up my uniform and cutting up other uniforms.
And it’s been triggering on many levels to even begin to think about what I want to express about my experience, because it’s like, yes, I can look at someone’s words on Combat Paper and say, yes, I feel that same way, or I experienced that, too, because I feel like it’s one place where I’m understood.
My family doesn’t understand me. A lot of the people that knew me before Somalia don’t understand me. And I feel like I come here and it’s okay. Whatever changed me, you know, about Somalia, here, it’s understood and it’s okay.
GWEN IFILL: There’s much more about the Combat Paper Project on our website, NewsHour.PBS.org, including a slide show of veterans’ art projects and an expanded look on how Combat Paper is created.
Also, if you’re a veteran involved in arts therapy, please share your story with us on our Art Beat page.