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'Combat Paper' holds therapeutic value and a lot of overlooked history

November 8, 2017 Updated: November 8, 2017 at 6:01 pm
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photo - Monday’s work from the Combat Paper project lies on a table after drying over night Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. Old military uniforms are made into pulp then transformed into paper as part of the project. Members of Combat Paper will be at the community college through Friday.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Monday’s work from the Combat Paper project lies on a table after drying over night Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. Old military uniforms are made into pulp then transformed into paper as part of the project. Members of Combat Paper will be at the community college through Friday. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Stripped of buttons and zippers but still displaying names on pockets and insignias on shoulders, old military uniforms rest on large tables, awaiting their next assignment.

It's called Combat Paper.

Founded a decade ago by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the program gives fellow veterans and active-duty military a creative means to turn their memories and personal documents into artwork using handmade paper.

The simple process has complex underpinnings.

"The imagery of being able to tear down one thing and build another gives closure," said Travis Leland, a Marine Corps and Army veteran who received a Purple Heart for wounds he sustained in Afghanistan. "This provided an empty chair for me to say goodbye to a lot of things."

This week at Pikes Peak Community College, veterans, students and community members are laboriously cutting donated camouflage pants and shirts into small squares.

Combat Paper instructor Nathan Lewis teaches students and faculty the process of making paper from retired military uniforms during a workshop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. The Combat Paper project makes pulp from the uniforms then transformed the pulp into paper. The uniforms hold stories of their own and are made into paper that can used to record other stories. Iraqi War veterans Lewis and his partner Tom Auzina will be at the community college through Friday. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Combat Paper instructor Nathan Lewis teaches students and faculty the process of making paper from retired military uniforms during a workshop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. The Combat Paper project makes pulp from the uniforms then transformed the pulp into paper. The uniforms hold stories of their own and are made into paper that can used to record other stories. Iraqi War veterans Lewis and his partner Tom Auzina will be at the community college through Friday. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

The cloth then is beat to pulp in a noisy hammering machine whose design hasn't changed since it was invented by the Dutch in the 1600s. Initially powered by windmills or water wheels, the beater led to the availability of paper for all people, not just the wealthy.

Small digressions into history are woven into Combat Paper workshops, which are presented nationwide at schools, military installations, art centers, VA hospitals and other venues.

This is the third year for PPCC to host the program, using funds from its sustainability program, said art professor Laura BenAmots.

"We see the workshop as a welcoming experience, an authentic, ancient art form that brings people together - veterans, war activists, peace activists," she said. "All are invited to sit at the table."

The pulp is mixed with water and shaken in flat screens until it settles. Silhouette shapes of dog tags, a small toy soldier, a dove, perhaps, and other artifacts can be imprinted before the fiber dries and becomes a one-of-a-kind sheet of paper.

"We focus on the stories of the uniforms - who wore them - which gives people the opportunity to make a story through their artwork," said Nathan Lewis, a workshop facilitator from New York.

Uniforms from every war the United States has engaged in have been donated, Lewis said.

Journals, books containing prose and pictures, and single-sheet prints with original images emerge as the finished products.

Student David Hamilton, who was discharged from the U.S. Marines in June, cuts up one of his old uniforms to be made into paper during a Combat Paper workshop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. Old military uniforms are made into pulp then transformed into paper as part of the Combat Paper project. Members of Combat Paper will be at the community college through Friday. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Student David Hamilton, who was discharged from the U.S. Marines in June, cuts up one of his old uniforms to be made into paper during a Combat Paper workshop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, at the Rampart Campus of Pikes Peak Community College. Old military uniforms are made into pulp then transformed into paper as part of the Combat Paper project. Members of Combat Paper will be at the community college through Friday. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

"I Hacky Sacked in Iraq" is the title of a book of poetry Lewis made and is on display at the workshop.

Afghanistan war veteran Travis Hollingsworth, a former Army infantryman who's now studying geology at PPCC, said it's not hard to tell which pieces are made by veterans.

"The darker type of artwork tends to be vets," he said. "The welcome home is the spouses and families, and the super patriotic ones are nonmilitary."

Hollingsworth said he left his artwork blank.

"I didn't want to read too much into it," he said. "The therapeutic part ends up happening on its own."

He thinks the program is "interesting."

"It totally makes sense," he said. "It allows veterans to express themselves, if need be, in a way that they can relate to. A lot of veterans miss the camaraderie, so this brings them together."

BenAmots expects 300 participants at this week's workshops, which continue from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and Friday at PPCC's main Centennial Campus in the Grove. Drop-ins are welcome.

"It's a wonderful way for people to sit around a table and share in the humanity of the experience, as we honor these uniforms and their journeys together," BenAmots said.

While healing from emotional war wounds can and does occur during the course of making the art, it isn't the focus, Lewis said.

"The therapeutic value - people feeling better - is a part of the process, but there's more to this than healing," he said. "There's a lot of political statements, a lot of history that's overlooked."

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