Combat Paper: Vets turn war trauma to art in Morristown

A veteran's would-be suicide note to his daughter is part of 'Trigger Experience,' a vets art exhibit in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
A veteran's would-be suicide note to his daughter is part of 'Trigger Experience,' a vets art exhibit in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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David Keefe wore the uniform of the United States Marines proudly in Iraq.

In Morristown, he will mash it into a pulp in the same spirit of Semper Fi.

A Vietnam veteran's haunting experience is part of 'Trigger Works,' a Morristown exhibition by Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
A Vietnam veteran’s wrenching memory is part of ‘Trigger Experience,’ a Morristown exhibition by Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The program, called Combat Paper NJ, helps veterans transform swatches cut from military uniforms into a canvas-like paper. The vets draw, paint or print their war stories onto these sheets.

“Some uniforms have bullet holes still in them. That’s a pretty intense session,” Keefe said last week, while setting up shop in the basement of the Morristown Parking Authority at 14 Maple Ave.

For the next two months, Keefe’s organization will be running workshops in the bunker-like space. Veterans are invited to free Sunday sessions from noon to 6 pm. On weekdays, veterans groups will have their turn.

Combat Paper artworks will be exhibited through January 2015 at the Atrium Gallery in Morristown. An opening reception is set for Sept. 19, 2014.

The program is not pitched as art therapy. It often just turns out that way, said Keefe, who served in Iraq in 2006-2007.

“The workshops are only for veterans. We close the doors, and vets really feel safe telling their stories, confiding the most horrible things they’ve seen.”

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Images from prior sessions are stark, intensely personal and deeply moving.

One work by a Vietnam veteran depicts a red cross, pictures of children, and the words: “She was gone, and there was nothing I could do.”

It’s the grim memory of a medic who cared for dozens of Vietnamese orphans. As he approached their village in his Jeep one day, a little girl ran into the road and warned him to turn back. He made a U-turn… and in his rear-view mirror saw the girl face-down in the dirt, shot by the Viet Cong.

Another chilling piece, Return to Sender, is a suicide note from an Iraq veteran to his daughter.  Fortunately, this back story has a happier ending. The man got the help he needed, and never joined the estimated 23 U.S. veterans who, according to The National Journal, take their own lives every day.

Vietnam veteran Jimmy Gervasio, left, views veteran artwork with Kadie Dempsey of Morris Arts, George Fiore of the Morristown Parking Authority and Iraq War veteran David Keefe of Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Vietnam veteran Jimmy Gervasio, left, views veteran artwork with Kadie Dempsey of Morris Arts, George Fiore of the Morristown Parking Authority and Iraq War veteran David Keefe of Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Combat Paper Project was launched in 2007 by a former soldier and an artist in Burlington, Vt.  A subsequent workshop in New Jersey proved so powerful that the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, a 40-year-old non-profit community arts center in Branchburg, started Combat Paper NJ in 2011.

Large grants have come from the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Combat Paper NJ promoted its workshops at last month’s Meet Me in Morristown sidewalk fair. Kadie Dempsey of Morris Arts, co-promoter of the fair, hooked up Keefe with the Parking Authority.

“We’re happy to help out those who served us. It’s a good cause,” said George Fiore, the Parking Authority’s executive director.

Michael Callahan of the Combat Paper NJ project shows cut-up military uniform, which will be recycled into paper for veteran artworks. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Michael Callahan of the Combat Paper NJ project shows cut-up military uniform, which will be recycled into paper for veteran artworks. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Some participants, like Keefe, who holds a master’s degree in art from Montclair State University, sell their works for hundreds of dollars, sharing 40 percent of proceeds with Combat Paper NJ. Others never have picked up a paint brush.

Former Morristown mayoral candidate Jimmy Gervasio is looking forward to sitting in. He has spent most of his adult life grappling with the trauma of his Marines tour in Vietnam, where he sustained grievous wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade.

“When I got back, it wasn’t until Reagan became president that I told anyone I was a veteran,” said Gervasio, a trustee on the Parking Authority.  He said his dreams are haunted nearly every night; combat is virtually impossible for civilians to grasp, he believes.

“Being in war, you’re on guard all the time, 24 hours. The stress never goes away.”

Yet, paradoxically, the singular nature of the experience, and the enduring bonds it forged, are why he would not erase his traumatic memories if a magic pill were offered.

Painting by Iraq veteran David Keefe, of Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Painting by Iraq veteran David Keefe, of Combat Paper NJ. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Keefe feels the same way about his patrols along the Euphrates River.

Although “war sucks,” and war is complicated, and scenes replay in his head “75 times a day”; and despite recent events in Iraq that make him question why so many of his pals sacrificed so much there, he still loves his country and would enlist all over again.

“It made me who I am today,” Keefe said of his service.

That service continues at Combat Paper NJ, where he helps fellow vets share what they are made of… using fibers from their military pasts.

Public viewings of Combat Paper NJ artworks are by appointment at 14 Maple. A special exhibition, Trigger Experience, will run through early January on the third floor Atrium Gallery of the Morris County Administration Building at 10 Court St., Morristown.  An opening reception at the Atrium is scheduled for Sept. 19, 2014,  from 6 pm to 9 pm.

 

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