By Camille Liptak, reporter
When I initially walked into the Rampart Range atrium on the first day of the Combat Paper workshop, I was uncertain.
Combat Paper is a decade-old program that gives veterans and active-duty military an opportunity to participate in a collaborative art making process, transforming their uniforms into handmade paper.
The idea of participating in the workshop as a civilian made me feel like I was encroaching on a private event reserved for those who have experienced the hardships and realities of military life.
I didn’t want to disrespect something I knew I didn’t fully understand.
However, the veteran-civilian exchange is an important part of Combat Paper.
The 5-day scene was a fraternity forum where civilians like myself as well as active-duty military, veterans, and family of the armed forces could connect and engage with one another.
With scissors in hand, students sat around the tables of donated military uniforms, and got to work on part one of the process: liberating the rags.
The reason for that name is simple.
In addition to separating the usable cloth from the zippers, buttons, and insignias, the military memories of trauma, loneliness, and readjusting are freed when the uniforms are cut up.
I saw the students reflecting on the fabric they were holding in their hands, and watched their reluctance soften as they realized the same thing I did.
Combat Paper is about more than art.
“It is authentically about the human journey, and people engaging together,” Art Professor Laura Ben-Amots said.
The sacredness, the symbolism, and the tradition of the uniforms are still intact, but there is a whole new level of insight gained when the memories of the uniforms are transferred from cloth into something that can be written on or read.
The well-attending facilitators, Nathan Lewis and Tom Auzina (both veterans from the war in Iraq) guided participants through interactive demonstrations of the paper-making process and the history behind it.
Lewis sat with groups, cutting the cloth into squares, while talking about the Combat Paper program. Auzina talked about how healing it was putting to use a uniform he had worn for so long.
Both men started as participants, and said the program and the process gave them a renewed sense of purpose and clarity.
“You can always look and see the uniform, but in a book form, you reflect on it in a different way,” Auzina said.
Hearing their stories, and those of others’ helped me to comprehend the hardships that veterans and active-duty servicemen and women experience during their time in the military.
As I walked around, looking at the bound books of poetry and journals, and the piles of dissected service uniforms, surrounded by a wall of drying papers, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere.
I wasn’t processing the same memories of those who have served, but I witnessed them transform into an altogether new thing.
These were the unheard stories of many servicemen and women finally given the stage they deserved.
“A veteran would much rather have the memories of their struggles, their victories, their journey recorded, and, what we call, a document, a sheet of paper that contains the memories through the fibers of their uniform,” BenAmots said.
It is healing, it is inspiring, but it is also a way for veterans to share their stories in their unique way. And it also gives civilians like me a chance to deepen our understanding of military service.
While the therapeutic benefits of the process are an important part, they aren’t the only facet of Combat Paper.
Having fun and building a community during the workshops whilst also giving a platform to veterans is important too, Lewis said.
In a short period of time, different people with different perspectives and experiences fused together like the fibers of the paper.
“By bringing people around the table –a veteran, a peace activist, a civilian, a reservist – having them all engage in the process together, we’re building community bridges,” BenAmots said.
Like the flyer said, Combat Paper is for everyone.
Anyone can repurpose their pain, victories, and memories the way the workshop helped many do this past week.
Encouraging student engagement through the art process, and helping veterans process their own memories, creates a compassionate society that honors survivors, BenAmots said.
Honoring survival and military history through a collaborative art making process– that’s what Combat Paper is.
By the workshop’s end, I made two sheets of paper, and was helping the Combat Paper crew clean up, wishing the workshop could have lasted longer.
To learn more about PPCC’s military and veteran community visit here
Additional information on resources for the military community can be found here