(MILITARY TIMES) SAVANNAH, Ga. — Tired of taking pills prescribed to suppress his pain, Zach Choate decided to wrestle head-on with the trauma that followed him home from Iraq. He began by using a razor to shred his Army uniform to bits.
“I’m hoping I come out of this a little more whole, a little bit more at peace,” said Choate, who was a gunner in the 10th Mountain Division. “I’m not an anti-war, anti-military person. This is just me fixing me.”
He chopped his camouflage jacket into inchlong strips. He diced the American flag patch on its right shoulder, along with a prescription for sleeping pills he found in a pocket. Even the Purple Heart ribbon Choate earned after being wounded by a roadside bomb got torn into tiny threads.
The 25-year-old soldier from Cartersville joined a handful of Iraq veterans at a Savannah art studio last week to destroy uniforms that had become painful reminders of their combat experience, using them to create something new.
The young vets mixed the jigsaw pieces with water and beat them into pulp to make sheets of paper — blank canvasses on which they could write, paint or screen images to tell their personal war stories.
The Combat Paper Project, a Vermont-based collective of combat vets who became artists after leaving the military, has spent the past year holding coast-to-coast workshops aimed at teaching former service members to help themselves by recycling fatigues into artwork.
Drew Cameron, who became opposed to the Iraq war after serving in an Army artillery unit during the 2003 invasion, started the group after moving to Burlington, Vt., where he learned paper making from a local artist while also becoming active with Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Cameron, 27, saw it as a way reach out to other Iraq veterans haunted by memories of friends slain in battle and men they had killed, wounded physically and psychologically by bomb and mortar explosions, and struggling to direct their own lives after years of being told what to do by the military.
“It’s about taking the things you did and owning them, taking responsibility and expressing them,” Cameron said. “The experience is not simple. For me to translate things that are hard to express, art is the perfect medium.”
The three-day Savannah workshop, held at a cinderblock studio facing a row of Victorian homes, was more like a freewheeling reunion than a rigid class.
Young vets, many sporting beards and long hair, would often arrive after lunch, two hours after the studio doors opened, and start shredding uniforms into piles on tabletops or on the floor.
“I just want to cut this thing into a million pieces,” said Jason Hurd, tearing the seams of the desert camouflage jacket he wore in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the Tennessee National Guard.
After spending 10 years in the military, the 29-year-old from Savannah said destroying his uniform was a way of proving that his life is now his own. He says he hasn’t shaved or cut his hair since leaving the Guard two years ago.
“When you hold these strips in your hand, you think about all the times you ironed it and spit polished your boots — all that was something the Army made you do,” Hurd said. “This is my uniform now. I’m not Army property anymore, and neither is it.”
The vets dunked their uniform scraps into water swirling through a belt-driven machine that beat the mixture into pulp before being drained into 18-gallon tubs. The pulp was sifted through a screen into sheets of paper, then carefully smoothed and stuck onto the windows outside to dry in the summer heat.
The finished paper is thick, almost like cardboard, with an olive-gray color accented by fine threads of red, blue and purple from any awards and decorations the former soldiers add.
Art can often help veterans cope with traumatic war experiences that can be difficult to put into words, said Paula Howie, an art therapist who worked for 24 years with soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
“It’s interesting they’re using something the person wore in combat and changing it into something else. I think that’s key,” said Howie, also a former president of the American Art Therapy Association. “It’s the beginning of changing these negative memories or thoughts into something more positive and productive.”
On the final day of their workshop, the veterans had turned their uniforms into more than 100 sheets of paper, many printed with silkscreen images in red and black: a figure of Buddha; a belt of machine-gun bullets; an image of Jesus with a quote from Matthew 5:39, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other.”
Nate Lewis, who deployed with an Army unit to Iraq in 2003, embedded his paper with Topps trading cards with photos of bombers, cruise missiles and aircraft carriers used during the first Gulf War. He remembered buying them as a boy in the early 1990s. Now he sees them as an example of children’s toys and games that glamorize war.
“They would appeal to me a lot more than football cards,” said Lewis, 26, of Barker, N.Y. “I would say a significant portion of my youth was spent outside playing the role [of a soldier]. I had a lot of toy guns.”
Threads from Choate’s Purple Heart stood out boldly in his paper, most of which he planned to bind together as a journal.
On one page, he screened an image of barbed wire above the letters “OIF?” — the abbreviation for Operation Iraqi Freedom, a phrase he now questions.
Choate says his misgivings about the war have left him estranged from friends who stayed in the Army. But making art with like-minded vets, he said, reminds him he’s not alone.
“Each one of these guys I meet along the way, they’re like family now,” he said. “It’s already helping. I’m starting to get the good feeling.”