Shredding war's dark memories
Iraq war veterans release their angst by turning their uniforms into paper.
Pair of scissors. Army uniform. Catharsis. Art.Skip to next paragraph
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Iraq war veteran Drew Cameron found his way back into civilian life by cutting up his uniform and turning the fabric of war into handmade paper. He imprinted the paper with poetry and self-portraits. He invited other veterans to join him in "liberating rag."
Now, a whole community of veterans, scattered across the United States and beyond, finds a certain solace in the craft and in the companionship.
Jennifer Pacanowski thought the idea was silly at first. But when she attended one of Mr. Cameron's papermaking workshops during a gathering of war veteran writers in Massachusetts, she was surprised by how it gripped her. "I just started cutting my uniform up, and before I knew it, I was sweating and my hand was bleeding," she says in a phone interview. "It was so satisfying, I can't even describe it.... It's so freeing, like just destroying a really bad memory."
The memory stems from Ms. Pacanowski's time as an Army medic in Iraq in 2004-05, and from the post-traumatic stress disorder with which she was later diagnosed. Three things keep her going, she says: her writing, her service dog Boo (trained to help sense an oncoming anxiety attack), and her connection with Cameron's Burlington, Vt.- based Combat Paper Project.
"I can write about Iraq in my poetry, but [the fact that] I can put it on my uniform – it's a pretty incredible concept," Pacanowski says. After she travels to the Vermont studio from her Pennsylvania home, she sleeps better because papermaking can be physically exhausting. More important, she breaks out of a sense of isolation: "In Vermont, everything seems to flow better because I have so many people around me who know what I'm going through."
The project has a purpose beyond the therapeutic, too. In exhibits and public workshops, it builds bridges between veterans and civilians. "When someone decides to take that act – to take their uniform and deconstruct it and turn it into paper – they're there and ready to share, so it becomes this phenomenally honest space," Cameron says.
Such connections happened earlier this year when the Firehouse Gallery, on a main pedestrian plaza in Burlington, hosted a Combat Paper Project residency for eight weeks. One Saturday, visitors heard stories from a man who had recently returned from Iraq. As he cut up his uniform, he pointed out the sweat and sand still embedded in it, Cameron recalls. He let others join in and help turn it into rags, then pulp, then paper.