Paper Trail

Last month, the Combat Paper Project rolled into Iowa City to collaborate on workshops for veterans with the University of Iowa's Center for the Book. The folks at Etsy expressed interest in my "covering the event" (while writing for The Storque, I'm learning an entirely new way of writing a story—interjecting the personal) and although it was a bit of a last-minute thing, I decided to give it a shot. These photos are from the final day of Combat Paper's residency: there was a real assembly line feel as my friends Emily and Sara graciously shared their skills and helped print sections of books created during the workshop.

As with most stories, I learned so much. In a nutshell, the Combat Paper Project provides a way for veterans to reconcile their combat experience by taking their uniforms, cutting them and beating them into pulp to create paper. The paper is then used as a medium for creative expression: it's bound into books for journals, molded into sheets of paper for printing and painting on; and formed into 3-D elements. The Combat Paper guys—Drew Cameron, Drew Matott, and Jon Turner—travel constantly, providing workshops and engaging the public at each venue.

My Etsy post covered just a little bit about the project: as with all stories, so much gets left out. For example, I learned that uniforms make terrible paper—their 50 percent polyester/50 percent cotton composition posed a real challenge for Drew M., who tested it extensively before coming up with a useable formula. I learned that a military doc in Afghanistan who works with soldiers so badly injured that they're sent to the U.S. for further treatment realized the value of the Combat Paper Project. He asked the project to send him materials to share with the returning vets so that they might consider the importance and accessibility of creative expression/reconciliation as part of the their healing process. I learned that not all soldiers keep their uniforms: some people burn them, give them to Goodwill, or simply throw them away. So an officer in the Army supplies the Combat Paper Project with uniforms destined for the trash, so that those without their own uniforms can use them to make paper.

I'm always amazed by the way that combat soldiers of the past largely kept their horrific experiences hidden. There were always names for post-traumatic stress disorder (in earlier wars a soldier having trouble readjusting was "shell-shocked") and the symptoms of drug and alcohol addiction were acknowledged as one outcome of readjusting after war. It seems that helping veterans reenter civilian life is finally being acknowledged as much more funding is needed to create programs and provide education to make this transition as successful as possible. To paraphrase Drew M. in my Etsy post, war doesn't just happen in other places, it comes home with the vets and if we don't have compassion for their challenges, then we should at the very least recognize that they live among us and that if their experiences can be reconciled, our entire society benefits.