Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of “Hope on the Homefront,” the Ithaca Voice’s 10-part series on the area’s veterans.
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TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. — Nathan Lewis lifts the lid of a large plastic grey vat.
“Shredded uniforms” it says on the outside, in thick black marker. Inside are the slivered remnants of hundreds of military uniforms, like multicolored confetti: shreds of blue from the Navy, yellow from the desert camo worn by the Army in the Arabian Desert, and green from the Marines’ woodland camouflage.
Lewis is an army veteran – he served with Charlie Battery 1st of the 14th Regiment, the 214th Brigade Artillery out of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He did his pre-deployment training at White Sands, New Mexico, an old military base where General Patton tested tanks. Lewis was trained to become an expert in “Multiple Launch Rocket Systems” artillery.
“We shot cluster bombs,” he says. He spent most of his six-month deployment in Baghdad, but traveled all over Central and Southern Iraq. He was 18 when he entered basic training and 20 when he went to Iraq.
But now, 33, he is a master papermaker and writer, living in the farmland outside Trumansburg. He is one of the thousands of veterans who report symptoms of PTSD, but Lewis prefers the term “war trauma”, because it’s more accurate.
He is worried about his lungs. He wheezes and coughs: this past winter his asthma was the worst it’s ever been.
He is having trouble inhaling enough air – inflamed respiratory disease, his doctor says. He suspects it’s caused by the smoke from “burn pits” that blaze all day at the army bases in war zones, and the depleted uranium used in U.S. weaponry, which becomes airborne.
Uniforms, painstakingly shredded by hand
He is a longtime member of two sister organizations – The Combat Paper Project and Warrior Writers – and runs five to six writing and paper-making workshops a year, helping hundreds of veterans and military family members in the transition from war zone to home life.
The projects also help these communities tell their stories and communicate the military experience through art, he explains.
The veterans he meets at workshops donate huge duffel bags full of uniforms they no longer need or want.
“They want us to use them for future projects and workshops, the fibers are added to our collective lineage. We will never run out of uniforms,” says Lewis. Most of the uniforms are painstakingly shredded by hand, cut with scissors into postage stamp-sized pieces.
Lewis took up papermaking in 2006, and he began taking part in – now hosting – dozens of writing, papermaking and book-binding workshops.
“I think I have milked as much therapy out of papermaking and writing as I can at this point. Now I am more focused on the craft of it. I have much more to learn and intend to keep making art that focuses on militarism and my experience in Iraq.”
A studio, symbols and a life-long burden
Lewis is tall and slender, with muscular arms. On his right forearm is a four-inch tattoo of a paperclip, a symbol of resistance in World War II that has now come to be a symbol of non-violent protest.
During Vietnam its meaning endured, and came to stand for “People Against People Ever Re-Enlisting, Civilian Life Is Preferred”.
His studio is full of symbols. Above the vats of uniforms is a heavy chain stretching across the wall; it is decorated, like a charm bracelet, with helmets, boots, beer cans and the empty prescription bottles of painkillers, psychotropics and sleep aids.
That was part of a piece of performance art he and two veteran friends put on in downtown Ithaca.
“That is what you carry around with you. Most people got it,” he says.
The Hollander beater – a machine developed by the Dutch in the 1600s, although Lewis’s is from the 1970s – whirs and spins. The uniforms mixed with water, and beaten for two hours, become a clay-colored pulp, like oatmeal.
“I think it is a lifelong thing, you are not going to wholly cure yourself of it,” he says of the psychological burdens he struggles with. “It comes and goes in severity, you don’t totally undo war trauma.”
Adjusting to civilian life
Last September, Lewis lost a lost a close friend who had helped him, and many others, confront mental illness. In September his friend, Jacob George, could no longer cope, and he committed suicide.
“I think that veterans commit suicide not just from the horrors and trauma of the military and war, but because they return to a society ravaged by a decade and a half of war with no end in sight.
“At the core of it is a distrust and an angry bitterness at society culture and country that put me in that position and created the war. When you talk about adjustment issues… that is a really big thing. I feel really betrayed. People are congratulating you and treating you as this wonderful thing, [a hero], and I think of it as something completely different. That is a recurring problem.”
Paper making and writing has helped in many ways. “It is a great expressive tool,” he says. “You are not going to write away all your problems. But this is a good first step.”
More than any other effect from the war, it is this injustice that troubles him the most. That is the root of his war trauma, he says.
“I don’t believe the war I participated in was just. It was not even legal,” he says.
See related: What is moral injury?
The next batches of paper
“It’s a safe space. We don’t judge or critique anyone’s politics, religion or experience. What does it cost to create a writing group? Nothing. What do you get out of it? Community, understanding, engagement, all these wonderful things.”
He keeps the door closed while he is spinning the fragments so the noise does not disturb his neighbors. But as the Hollander whirs to a halt, he throws opens the doors and starts pouring the pulp into vats and then “sheets” – screens of mesh framed with wood.
Lewis works overlooking corn fields, berry farms and dense woodlands. Bees are looking for a home in the studio rafters. Across the way, a neighbor is mowing her lawn.
He is making new batches of paper today using one of his favorite techniques: while the pulp is still wet he uses stencils to form images – it’s called pulp painting.
While training at the White Sands Missile Range Lewis collected remnants of war on walks in the desert, which he removes from an old cookie tin today. There are 50 caliber bullets, his dog tags, which have grown rusty, machine gun belt “linkage” and a “humanitarian service medal” given to him by a friend.
There’s another medal for service in the war on terrorism, and a plastic toy soldier. He uses them for stencils now. He is known, amongst the paper-making community for his faces using bullet stencils. He carefully presses the bullets into the wet pulp, stands back for a moment, and then wipes his hands.
Melissa Whitworth can be reached at email@example.com