When they asked me if I had any of my old uniform left, and would I want to cut it up and make paper out of it, I said, Damn right I do!
When Drew Cameron returned to the States after his combat tour as an Army artilleryman, he headed to college in Vermont on the GI Bill. “It was a completely new place,” he said. “I just wanted to focus on school, work hard and all that kind of stuff.” In the intellectually stimulating classroom environment, Cameron’s status as a combat veteran was compelling him to speak about the war, but he had a problem: “I felt alienated. I didn’t have the language to tell my story, but wanted to express it. I wanted people to understand, but didn’t know if they were willing to listen.”
Drew Cameron’s war was in Iraq. But what he’s discovered since returning to “the world” are the common threads that bind combat veterans of today with those who fought and survived the war in Vietnam.
Shortly after getting to Burlington, Vt., in 2003, Cameron met artist, teacher and paper maker Drew Matott, who taught him the craft of making handmade paper, which Cameron began using for creating his own art work. Out of that serendipitous meeting some seven years ago has emerged a unique and expanding project, led by the two Drews, that is providing veterans from the Vietnam War a new language to help them express their war experiences and, for many, a way to help cope with long-felt trauma.
The Combat Paper Project was born out of Cameron’s quest to understand and work through his own Iraq War experiences, and to try to tell his story through art. “That evolved into this sort of multilayered project with others who are going through that same thing,” said Cameron. “It has grown much bigger than the idea of simple personal reflection to become this huge collaborative of story telling, art making and community understanding.”
And for veterans, it all starts with a willingness to take an intimate, physical and often cherished piece of their past, their uniform, and, alongside other veterans, engage in its deconstruction and transformation into handmade sheets of paper.
“I’d been making paper for four years before Combat Papers started,” Cameron explained. “I was thinking of how to add another layer of content, of story, in the fibers specifically. I thought, instead of using raw fiber gathered in the field and paper fibers made in mills, why not use material that holds all these additional contextual components? That thinking coincided with what I was doing in creative writing and other visual work around my Iraq War experience. With Drew Matott, we began to conceptualize and collaborate to create the Combat Paper Project.”
Cameron said he hadn’t touched his uniform from Iraq since he left. Turning those uniforms into paper, he said, “has allowed a really thorough and comfortable way to speak about my military experience and examine the military culture through the Iraq War lens. It has allowed me to embrace my experience, understand it and convey it in a clear way, even the more challenging, complex aspects. I felt for the first time that I got a hold on it, and could go to that place and have it not be a really destructive event.”As Cameron invited his veteran friends to join him in the project, working quietly in their studio, the circle gradually expanded and it was apparent that “the ritual of breaking rag, communally cutting apart the uniforms, was really important. The physical process itself was therapeutic and gave individuals a safe place to share their experiences.”
Combat Paper Project workshops have been held around the country in the past couple of years, attracting veterans of the ongoing wars and a number of Vietnam War veterans as well. Dick Iacovello served in Vietnam as a medic in the Army Medical Corps for a year beginning in October 1962. Much of his time was spent with the Special Forces in the Central Highlands organizing Montagnard tribesmen into effective fighters against the Viet Cong. He also volunteered on missions out of Pleiku that took troops into the field and picked up the wounded. Iacovello was injured on one such flight when his helicopter crash-landed after taking fire.
Iacovello believes his struggle with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) actually began while in Vietnam. “I would wake up sweating after having had dreams that I couldn’t remember,” he said. “But, I just accepted it. Why shouldn’t I have bad dreams? I was exposed to these bad things happening.” When he was discharged, he had a broken eardrum and what the doctor called at the time “some nervous problems.” It wasn’t until the early 1980s that he sought out treatment for PTSD.
An avid photographer and artist living on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Iacovello learned about the Combat Paper Project at a presentation at a local cafe last year. “I was really impressed and told them I wished there had been some kind of organization like this when I came back from Vietnam,” he said. “So I asked how I could support them. They asked if I had any part of my old uniform left. Although I had recently thrown out a lot of stuff, I did still have my old Army hat. They asked me if I would want to cut it up and make paper out of it. I said, ‘Damn right I do.’ ”
At the workshop, along with combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iacovello went through the process of making paper. “I wasn’t really thinking much about it beyond learning the process: cutting and shredding the material, pulping it, putting it through its cycle in the water, capturing the pulp and meshing it together to make a strong paper, then putting it in the press, getting the water out and drying it. There was fiber that remained, and I could still see where the red threads from the cross on the hat were.”
It wasn’t until Iacovello printed some of his own images from his tour in Vietnam that he felt the full impact. “It was a real catharsis to see the images on the paper made from my uniform,” he said. “It was like a weight lifted off of me. When I looked at it, I felt a rush of something being swept away, airing out of me.”Iacovello’s reaction is no surprise to Gretchen Miller, a certified art therapist and trauma specialist who consults for the Combat Paper Project. “It can be a powerful experience,” she said. “The process part, the sensory-based actions of using your hands, the repetition and relaxation, is self soothing.” She noted that the physical activity “keeps you in the here and now,” while at the same time allowing the veterans to reexamine their war experiences and share with others. “Your guard is not as strong when you have that sensory activity going on,” she said. “Sometimes you are not even realizing that you feel safer, not as threatened. There is so much in that process, the concrete steps of creating meaning through the symbolic art and talking about it, sharing it with the group, that helps with the transformation.”
As Iacovello experienced, Miller said the process gives new perspective and meaning to the individual’s experience: “There is also the feeling of letting go and opening a path to healing by providing a different outlet for turning their past into positives. They can reclaim their experience as a soldier and the good things connected to that. Or they can reframe something that they are holding on to in a way that is not as negative.”
Dan O’Leary arrived in Vietnam in July 1966 with the 54th Signal Battalion, after a tumultuous train ride through a gantlet of antiwar protestors in Berkeley, Calif. His return a year later through Oakland Airport was equally unpleasant. The only uniform he had left 43 years later was the one he was wearing when he finally got home to his family. “Even though it just hangs in my closet,” he said, “when I look at it, I’m reminded of my homecoming with my family.” O’Leary, who was invited to participate in a Combat Paper Project workshop at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial last December, couldn’t bear to cut up his only remaining uniform. However, his brother-in-law and best friend, Brendan Houlihan, was an Army captain and Vietnam-era vet. “He passed away three years ago and as I was helping my sister move his stuff, I found his uniform,” said O’Leary. “So I decided to use it for the Combat Paper Project.”O’Leary admitted it was still a hard thing to do: “You know you have to cut it into postage stamp size pieces, tiny pieces. I’m sitting there, the scissors in one hand and the uniform in the other. And then one of the Drews looks at me and says, ‘What’s the matter?’ I told him I’m having a hard time doing this. You know, there are his name and bars and insignias. So he said, ‘Tell you what, why don’t you cut his name and the insignias and all that stuff off, and when the pulp is wet, we embed them into that pulp?’”
That’s what he did. “And there was his name, his bars and insignia. It made me feel better,” said O’Leary. “After I saw it all done, man, it made me feel good.” He had the piece framed, and it now hangs in a place of honor in his sister’s home.
O’Leary said his bad experience upon returning from Vietnam bothered him for years: “I didn’t go to college and got drafted. And even after coming back to work after being gone for two years, nobody ever said, ‘Hey, man, how was it?’ you know. One guy even called me a sucker for going.” He said while the workshop was a real emotional experience, it was also very helpful to him: “Sitting around the table, cutting up our uniforms, the guys were all talking, recalling the same kind of things, talking about Vietnam.”
Cameron couldn’t be happier about Vietnam vets getting involved. “It is very encouraging to have them join us and go through the process and see them get excited,” he said, “exchanging and sharing stories, getting inspired, being creative and just running with it.” He’s found that the generational expanse brings different qualities to the workshops: “Iraq and Afghanistan war vets seem to have a lot more photographs and hundreds of accessible digital pictures—a lot of imagery that can lead directly into a story. For Vietnam vets, the imagery often comes verbally, someone telling the story of their job, and that spurring another story.”
One of the things Cameron has seen when vets of different generations work together is that: “Vietnam vets have so much to teach us. They have been back home 40 years—or trying to get back home so to speak—and working in a way to make sense of it all. They serve as an inspiration.”
While most who participate want to “activate” the paper with some art relative to their personal story, Cameron said, “for some vets just making the paper and being in the workshop is enough.” Anyone can participate, he stressed, no art experience necessary.
Whether the combat was four decades ago in Vietnam, or last year in Afghanistan, Cameron reiterated that there are unbreakable threads that connect all war veterans. His goal is help individuals share their experiences, “to reaffirm that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only one shouldering these memories and emotions. That there are others out there who do understand.”
Visit CombatPaper.org for more about the Combat Paper Project or its workshops.