From Warrior to Artist: How Soldiers Are Tapping Into Unimagined Creativity

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There’s nothing “post” about post-traumatic stress disorder, according to artist and former U.S. Marine David Keefe.
“In fact, it happens every minute of every day. You are constantly thinking and reliving your experiences, every second,” he says.
David is a dynamic man with the gallant heart of a patriot and a sensitive, artistic mind. A wide range of influences conflated to lead him through the experiences that built his strong character and helped him decide to devote his time to strengthening the character of his peers.
Eleven days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, David joined the armed forces like his grandfather and uncle before him. He served a tour of combat duty with the U.S. Marines as an infantry scout in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2006 and 2007.
“I joined because it was my time to serve, to be a part of something greater. … I think to serve is a great desire in humans,” he says.

The original photo as used for inspiration for the shredded and repurposed uniform below. Photo courtesy of David Keefe

“I kept busy with school and various projects, but then found myself in hard times in 2010,” he says.
The close relationships David had established with his fellow Marines provided solace in a time and place where comfort was a scarce luxury. The transition to civilian life saw those tight bonds begin to unravel.
“A lot was going on in my life and I needed a community to help me through it, but I had no one. That’s when I found Combat Paper,” he says.
David’s shredded and repurposed uniform depicts him with “his buddy,” a young Iraqi boy. Photo courtesy of David Keefe.

Combat Paper’s motto – from uniform to pulp, battlefield to workshop, warrior to artist – illustrates the profound affect it has on those involved. Participants shred their military uniforms into pulp to symbolically deconstruct their military identities. Then, they compound the pulp into paper, which mirrors the veterans’ formation of a new sense of self and purpose independent of military service. The paper, and their lives, becomes a blank slate. Next, participants paint, draw, design and write on the paper – a process that helps them come to terms with repressed experiences and emotions while creating a new vision for the future.
David now teaches the first ever three-credit Combat Paper Course for veterans at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where he also teaches painting. He’s become the full time Director of the Printmaking Center of the New Jersey division of Combat Paper.
For David, Combat Paper is all about telling your story and taking ownership of the past.
Read the compelling interview with David Keefe here.
Featured photo (top): David and the Combat Paper NJ team share a photo at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of David Keefe

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