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There’s A Surprising Weapon In The Battle For Soldiers’ Mental Health

“Wait, what? The Army has an arts and crafts department?” Yes it does, and for good reason.

For the past seven years, the rate of U.S. military suicides has been alarmingly high; according to the most recent numbers from the Department of Defense, 266 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves in 2015 alone. (For a disheartening comparison, the total number of suicides was less than 200 between 2001 and 2007.)

The reasons for the increase aren’t entirely clear, according to a 2014 study out of USC that examined several potential root causes—including the modern soldier’s struggle to combat terrorism. In any case, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that nearly 31 percent of Vietnam vets and 20 percent of Iraq War vets suffer from PTSD, which the National Institute of Health explains can result in a number of symptoms, from becoming emotionally numb to losing interest in prior passions.

[quote position="full" is_quote="false"]Women cut up their uniforms—and, the thinking goes, any associated emotional baggage—then beat it to a literal pulp to create the paper used to print the book.[/quote]

One Iraq war veteran, Drew Cameron, has taken a rather unexpected approach to tackling PTSD, reawakening soldiers’ enthusiasm for life through arts and crafts. Together with papermaker Drew Matott, Cameron is the founder of the Combat Paper Project, which invites veterans and people impacted by war to make paper out of their military uniforms, then use it to create art. In addition to its California paper mill, the Combat Paper Project has locations in Nevada, New York, and New Jersey. The project has also staged 150 multi-day workshops in more than 30 states since it was founded in San Francisco in 2007.

At the same mill, women soldiers were asked to cut up their uniforms—and, the thinking goes, any associated emotional baggage—then beat it to a literal pulp to create the paper used to print a handmade, limited edition book called Paper Dolls, also available as a trade edition. Indeed, the book contains a fully functional selection of paper dolls (spoiler alert: they wear military gear). The project was intended to specifically address the unique issues faced by women soldiers: As of 2013, the Pentagon estimated that an average of one in three women servicemembers are raped, as reported by the New York Times.

Surprisingly, the Combat Paper Project and Paper Dolls are far from early adopters of military crafting-as-healing. The history of craft in the U.S. military dates back at least to World War II, when servicemembers started crafting in barracks to kill time. In a now-archived Reddit post titled “Wait, what? The Army has an arts and crafts department?,” members expressed disbelief at the fact that the U.S. Army funds arts and crafts at garrisons for active servicemembers, even holding an annual arts and crafts contest featuring ten categories: Ceramic Art, Digital Art, Drawings, Fiber Art, Glass Art, Metal Art, Mixed Media 2D, Mixed Media 3D, Paintings, and Wood Art.

Yet there is no dedicated department of arts and crafts for veteran rehabilitation, at least not through the federal government. Instead, for decades, individual veterans have turned to crafting on their own, as explored in the PBS documentaryCraft in America: Service” and a recent exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, “Art and Other Tactics: Contemporary Craft by Artist Veterans.” By applying funds from the G.I. Bill toward taking on new artistic disciplines, more and more vetarns are finding solace in crafts like pottery, woodworking, and metalsmithing. One nonprofit, Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV), receives no federal funds for the craft kits it sends to recovering veterans, though it reports that “89.6 percent of the patients felt HHV craft therapy helped maintain or improve their physical capabilities.”

Other than shifting the urge to self-destruct into an act of creation, a number of promising grassroots paths to healing have arrived for soldiers and veterans with PTSD. Veterans have started taking matters into their own hands to start grassroots social media support groups, as the New York Times reported last month. Former soldiers post a “buddy check” on Facebook on the 22nd of every month—a callback to a harrowing (and contested) statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every single day. For a dose of military humor, visit the Facebook group Peter the PTSD Awareness Penguin. There’s even the physically strenuous 22 Push-ups Challenge that asks its community to do 22 push-ups every day for 22 days to raise awareness.

As a country, it’s pretty clear we could be doing a lot more to help our active servicemembers and veterans traumatized by war. Crafting and community building look like two great ways to start.

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