If there's a stereotypical image of military veterans returning home from war, it definitely does not involve driving a beat-up VW bus with bumper stickers on the back proclaiming ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost.' But there is the van, parked in front of the barbershop-turned-art co-op that is the nineonetwo building on 40th Street.
Inside the building there are a half dozen guys who don't look the part of ex-soldiers either (although one of them had played a soldier in a yet-to-be-released Matt Damon film about war in the Middle East).
Half of them are bearded and have long hair. There is a jar of granola on a nearby table and the cooler has some organic juice in it.
The motley crew surrounds a table covered in strips of camouflage that was a military-issued uniform before their knives and scissors went to work removing seams and buttons. They are busy cutting the fabric into smaller pieces that will be fed into a grinder and turned to pulp, which will in turn be pressed into paper.
The scene could merit the headline "Hippies Vandalize Fort Stewart Closet," just as readily as "Veterans Create Revolutionary Art Therapy Program."
It's their conversation that gives them away though. The young men aren't talking about Phish touring again or the healing power of crystals.
They are swapping notes on deployments to Iraq; on how things changed from invasion to occupation; on the effects of privatization in the armed forces ("We had to get rocket pods from a civilian named Larry," someone quips); and how the art of making paper has given them something very important after returning from the battlefield.
They are all part of the Combat Paper Project, an organization founded by Army veteran Drew Cameron two years ago that hosts papermaking workshops, where veterans learn to transform their uniforms into paper.
"Your uniform is a tool. It identifies you. It gives you identity," says Scott Meeker, who left the Navy in 2007, and who is the local coordinator of the CPP's visit. "When you come home, that carries trauma - physical and emotional - this is a way to deconstruct that and reconstruct it into something positive. It's an incredible process."
The CPP's mission is to provide other service men and women with a creative, personal means for making the psychological and emotional transition back to daily life. And recently Cameron and other members have taken their workshop to the UK, Canada, and numerous cities and towns around the US, offering support to veterans of all ages.
People who served in WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even the Falklands have come to take part in the CPP.
"People get involved for different reasons," Cameron explains. "Some are interested in paper, some are political, and some want to do something with their uniforms...Some people get a really emotional experience."
For Nathan Lewis, an army veteran from upstate New York who travelled to Savannah with Cameron, and who has participated in several workshops in the past year, the experience of transforming his uniform into something else was liberating.
"What was memorable was cutting it up," Lewis explains. "It represents you in the military. It felt like a drill sergeant was about to bust in and yell at you."
While making paper might seem like a strange pursuit for someone who has survived a war, Cameron points out that there is historical precedent for what they are doing - it was soldiers returning from the Crusades who brought the art of making paper to Europe hundreds of years earlier - they are upholding that tradition.
Cameron learned about papermaking from his father before learning more at a workshop at the Green Door Studio in Burlington, VT - an art co-op that has become headquarters for the Combat Paper Project.
"The first step in papermaking is liberating the rag," says Cameron with a smile as he describes the process to a first-timer.
He obviously relishes the phrase and has used it often in these situations. The keyword is liberation - if the uniform frames their identity while they are in the military, then it is now time to break free from those constraints - to move beyond that past life like a snake shedding its skin.
It's not an easy process for everyone though. "I support it, but I don't know if it's for me," says Warren Arbry, a former sergeant in the army who was discharged almost a year ago because of the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. He was eight months into his third deployment, and had just re-enlisted for seven more years when he was given an honorable discharge. "I loved being in the army."
Arbry has only been in Savannah for a month, and he met Cameron and Meeker the night before while they were handing out fliers downtown. He had intended to donate his hat to the pile of uniforms, but is now having second thoughts.
"It's weird getting sentimental about things you normally hated," he says, reaching up to touch the brim.
As soon as he walked through the door, Arbry joined the group's ongoing conversation, swapping stories about the idiosyncrasies of military life and the war. These young vets immediately find common ground through shared experiences, and it becomes clear that one of the most important components of the Project's travels is sharing with one another - commiserating and empathizing - and finding a sense of belonging.
It can be lonely as an ‘army of one' who is suddenly without a war to fight, and these workshops serve as a reminder that there are others who understand those experiences, both on the battlefield and off. Not all of the veterans the group meets have to make paper to have been helped by the Combat Paper Project.
Over the last three years suicide rates among the military has climbed to its highest level in the 30 years that such statistics have been kept. It's a fact that adds an extra layer of poignancy to the CPP's journey.
Amidst the steady flow of conversations, there is brief discussion of a friend who lives nearby that several people are disappointed won't be coming by this afternoon - despite the fact that they have all just driven over 1,000 miles - because he is dealing with a bout of depression.
Knowing people struggling with forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common trait around the table, something that only other vets could really understand.
"There's vets everywhere," says Cameron. "Every time we stop some place, we have interactions with all these people [and] there's all these commonalities of experience."
For more information about the Combat Paper Project visit www.combatpaper.org. For local veterans who need assistance with the re-adjustment to life after combat, contact the Savannah Vet Center 912-961-5800.
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