Poetry and visual art-making played a huge role in my own healing from depression and some of the traumatic events I suffered during my childhood and marriage. Through the work of David Whyte, I found the National Association for Poetry Therapy, where I completed training as a poetry facilitator and journaling instructor. Because of my own experiences in using the arts for heeling, I am always drawn to stories of people on a similar path to wholeness. I first encountered Drew Cameron’s story in 2008, and I offer this previously published interview as a tribute to all of our veterans who seek healing for the trauma of their war experiences.
Drew Cameron, 30, lives in San Francisco, California. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.
Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.
Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.
AB: What do you mean, stupid things?
DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.
AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?
DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible experience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.
AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?
DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Creating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.
They [vets] come in here and start talking, making paper, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.
AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?
DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.
AB: What would you like to see come out of your experience? What do you want people to know?
DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.
AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?
DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.
Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.
When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of combat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.
AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?
DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing without a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.
Originally published in July, 2008 in The Museletter, a publication of The National Association for Poetry Therapy.