I’M THE ONLY THING I’M AFRAID OF.
The stenciled capital letters dominate the slate gray canvas. It’s the sentence Chris Petersen chose. To hear him talk in a small group of friendly ears, there aren’t enough words—or maybe any appropriate words at all—to express what he experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petersen comes off as affable during the Combat Paper workshop. He smiles a fair amount and even jokes about his post-traumatic stress disorder. Dressed in a short-sleeved, half-buttoned plaid shirt and jeans, only the discerning eyes of a passerby who knows what the memorial bracelet on his left wrist symbolizes would guess he was a soldier, much less one who saw constant combat as an Army cavalry scout.
“At the age of 23, I had seven guys that I had to bring back home. That’s a lot of stress,” Petersen told a standing-room-only crowd at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia. “I lost a buddy. I’ve been shot at more times than I care to count.”
He spoke in false starts followed by moments of extreme honesty. The audience was transfixed.
“There needs to be more programs like this,” Petersen said, folding and unfolding the poem he was preparing to read about his fight with PTSD as he alternated his gaze between the floor and the back of the room. “When I got out … I’m still bitter, I’m angry and I’m rough around the edges. …
“It’s so simplistic, but the idea of cutting up a uniform that has meaning or an attachment to you and then repurposing it to something that’s useful, it really helped a lot. It helped me let go of some stuff.”
Combat Paper is a metaphor wrapped in a Department of Defense-issued camouflage jacket. And that jacket is about to be shredded.
Anyone who has served can turn his or her old uniforms into art at a Combat Paper workshop in a few days’ time. It all starts with a centuries-old papermaking process with a few modern twists.
“I was a little bit hesitant at first,” said Sergeant Joe Merritt, who was in the process of transitioning out of the Marine Corps when he participated in the August workshop at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “It was cutting up a uniform that I spent seven years taking care of. … I figured if it was signed off by everybody, it wasn’t some kind of anti-military thing.”
Fabric that started as uniforms, T-shirts and even socks are cut into postage stamp-sized pieces, combined with water and cooked fiber and beaten to a pulp in a machine. The pulp is pressed into sheets of paper and dried overnight until it’s ready to be used as an art canvas. From there, participants can use their own designs and photos—or the litany of catalog options the Combat Paper team brings along—to express themselves. The workshops usually culminate with a gallery event open to the public, where the artwork is displayed and participants read a piece they’ve written about why they chose to participate.
While cutting up the uniforms is the hook to the outside world, it’s not necessarily the payoff. Any catharsis achieved from running a rotary cutter over battle-worn fabric pales in comparison to the interactions around the table during the process, along with the end product that’s produced.
“Sharing stories really helps put all that onto the piece that you’re making,” said Merritt, who battled post-traumatic stress disorder after a combat deployment. “For me, I wasn’t as good at opening up in medical style of therapy and group therapy, but without even thinking about it, [I]was opening up just by making the art.
“I got more out of Combat Paper in a week than I got out of two months in therapy.”
Of course, just showing up at the workshop doesn’t guarantee a meaningful conversation, even if the process is packed with interactive icebreakers. A Combat Paper workshop requires troops to put both physical and emotional parts of themselves on canvases. But the memories of the attendees—often men and women who’ve seen the ugliness of war firsthand—aren’t casual conversation fodder, even inside a barracks room.
To facilitate the conversation, Combat Paper teams with Warrior Writers, a nonprofit that was founded in 2007 with a focus on getting service members to tell their stories.
“Veterans don’t often have a place to talk about their experiences and tell their stories,” said Lovella Calika, director and co-founder of Warrior Writers. “I think some veterans are really looking to be understood by other people and their peers, and to talk about things they wouldn’t in an everyday conversation with a stranger.”
The Warrior Writers component exists to spark the art. Some Combat Paper participants will have a clear vision of what they want to say. Others will come into the studio seeking inspiration. The poems and essays Calika and other Warrior Writers facilitators read are as much challenges to the participants as they are inspirations, as they’re usually followed by a group writing activity. When everyone’s pens are down, the stories that are read as they take turns around the table slowly squeeze emotion out of the participants. They spur group conversations and side conversations. And many times, they lead to expressive breakthroughs.
“It brings up a lot of emotions that are kind of hard to deal with,” said Merritt, who participated in two Combat Paper workshops before acting as a co-facilitator during the August event. “[It’s important to have] somebody to just be like ‘Hey, I was in your seat six months ago, so I kind of know how you feel if you want to just go outside and talk for a minute.’”
Eli Wright always looks like he’s thinking.
The former combat medic who served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division started making Combat Paper at the Green Door Studio Artist Collective in Burlington, Vermont, where the concept was created. Wright was making Combat Paper before the founders—Drew Cameron and Drew Matott—had developed the workshop model and given the project a name.
“Getting away on the weekends and going up there, it was kind of a refuge for me,” Wright said. “My first experience was very transformative. Catharsis is a term a lot of participants use, and I definitely had that response to it.”
So Wright kept coming back. In 2010, Combat Paper did a weeklong residency at The Printmaking Center of New Jersey. A year later, Combat Paper—which has seven affiliated studios in six locations nationwide—launched Combat Paper NJ in Branchburg, with Wright and fellow artist and veteran David Keefe at the helm.
Now, Wright spends his weeks traveling around the Northeast to veteran population centers doing the two things he’s always returned to in life—healing and teaching.
“I think in many ways [working for Combat Paper is] an extension of what I did in the military,” he said. “My job was involved in helping heal people. So, when that career ended, I have still been drawn toward helping others.
“So, I feel like … all the things that I lost in the military I’m, in a lot of ways, getting back by being able to help others with their issues.”
Wright quietly went about doing just that during the Fort Belvoir workshop, manipulating his laptop to turn the participants’ artwork, photos and ideas they found in books into transparencies to be transferred onto the Combat Paper.
On the night of the showcase at the Lorton Workhouse, Wright walked the gallery floor dozens of times, making sure each piece of art was hung perfectly and shaking hands with friends and patrons in attendance.
The pivotal moments—whether they’re as public as Petersen’s gallery night speech or as private as Merritt’s hallway conversations with fellow veterans—were all represented on the walls.
“It’s like an ‘Aha’ moment I see on their faces when they’ve gone through the process of creative writing, they’ve given us their photographs [and] we’ve worked with them to create a narrative or a story out of these images and words,” Wright said, when asked how he defined success at a Combat Paper workshop. “And the moment that they see that become printed on the paper that they make—it’s like we’ll pull a screen print across the sheet—and then they look at it and it’s like ‘Wow.’
“I think that’s probably one of the best experiences that I get out of it is just seeing that one moment of like ‘There’s my story. Now I have something to share with others.’”
Eric Brandner is the USO's director of story development.