COLUMBIA — For war veterans, the struggle to return to normalcy is as old as ancient Greece, and remains as relevant as ever. Greek playwright Sophocles once wrote about a "divine madness" that had infected the mind of Ajax, a legendary warrior who found himself helpless to cope with life after war, and whose life ended with tragedy.
Today? That "divine madness" is called post-traumatic stress disorder. Ajax's self-destructiveness is recycled in the lives of U.S. veterans, who face increased rates of homelessness and violence as a group.
Sophocles, a veteran himself, attacked the problem through art as a way to bring catharsis; now, two artists are hoping to do the same in Columbia.
At Orr Street Studios on Friday night, Vermont artists Drew Cameron and Drew Matott held a fundraiser to promote an unorthodox project called "Combat Paper," designed to help veterans cope with the memories of war by cutting up old uniforms and turning the shreds into paper. They are hoping to raise enough money — $3,000 — to hold a week-long workshop with Columbia veterans in September.
One table at the presentation was mounded with a mass of buttons and a gnarled pile of shredded camouflage, which sat next to a portable pulper. Once pulped, shaped and dried, Matott said one uniform can make up to 350 sheets of 8-by-11 paper. The paper created from uniforms is varying shades of green, embedded with little flecks and strands of unpulped fiber. It feels tough, like extra-rugged construction paper.
Other tables showed off some finished products: A stark book of poems written by an Iraq war veteran, and a series of stenciled prints silhouetted with images of helicopters and tanks, often inscribed with the words "I am sewn with the stolen threads of youth" — a line written by Cameron. One print featured a picture of Cameron, an Army veteran, cutting his uniform from Iraq off of his body; the uniform was later made into the paper the image was printed on.
"We survive traumatic events and it's not easy to talk about," said Cameron, 28, one of the project's co-founders. "We often times feel pretty isolated and alienated and don't know how to make sense of it."
Art was both a way for veterans to experience catharsis and for them to express themselves to a public that had only seen "misrepresented, misunderstood, fetishized and sanitized" stories about the country's wars, Cameron said.
Matott, an artist and Cameron's partner on the project, said most of the project's participants "most certainly" suffer from PTSD, and often come in pretty skeptical. The veterans soon open up.
"Cutting up uniforms is where the real emotional stuff happens," Matott said. "That's when the tears come out." He called it the "experience of letting go," and told the story of one participant whose dead sibling was a Vietnam veteran. The uniform was pulped and then turned into a photo album for the family.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Marine Corps veteran Tyree Byndom told Cameron and Matott that he "felt drawn" to them.
"Even when I came in and started looking at the pieces ... I already started feeling it inside. I felt some things starting to surface," Byndom, 38, said.
Byndom said he had joined the Marines at a young age to get out of Columbia, where a lot of his friends were getting in trouble with the law. "I gotta go home and process this," Byndom said later. "There's a lot of stuff I've been pushing aside."
Janel Martin, who organized the visit from Cameron and Matott, said that the Combat Paper Project gave her hope that her son, who is serving in Afghanistan, can come home and lead a normal life.
"People want to help, but what do we do?" Martin said. "I don't know what to do. Do you know what to do? I think as a community, we need to do something specific, something concrete to help."
Matott and Cameron have been in high demand since starting the project in 2007, performing workshops both in the United States and abroad. Recently, they worked with English army veterans and members of the Irish Republican Army that were on opposite sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
"This is not an anti-war project," Matott said. He said notebooks made out of old uniforms were popular with wounded soldiers stuck in hospitals. "The U.S. Army sent us 50 pounds of uniforms recently, and said 'When you run out of these, let us know, and we'll send you more.'"
The two are currently booked through 2012, including a trip expected to take them to work with veterans in Germany, the Balkans and in Turkey. A recent schedule change opened the possibility for a workshop in Columbia in September, provided enough money could be raised. Matott said the $3,000 covered basic costs such as food and transportation.
Those interested in the project can join the Facebook group "Combat Paper Project Comes to Columbia.".