“You are not my enemy/ my grandmother my grandfather.
I built walls between us./ Rubble made sound
sand scattered plastic bags all around
rifles and checkpoints/bright lights into your eyes...”
Twenty-six-year-old Iraq veteran Drew Cameron writes poetry to heal the trauma of war. And he makes paper. From combat uniforms. He is among a group of leaders from IVAW — Iraq Veterans Against the War — who will be on Martha’s Vineyard next week to perform their poetry, present art, offer open paper-making workshops and facilitate poetry workshops called Warrior Writers to more than 30 other Iraq veterans coming to the Island from all over the country.
They will begin the week at Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven, at 8 p.m. Monday, July 21, with a powerful presentation of original poetry drawn from their experiences of war.
Most of these Warrior Writers have PTSD — post traumatic stress disorder. It’s something Mr. Cameron says all soldiers bring home: “In the words of my good friend Matt Howard, ‘Anybody who goes to war is going to be spiritually and emotionally affected by gross violence.’” Mr. Howard, a Marine Corps veteran with two tours in Iraq, will be part of the contingent coming to the Island next week.
Mr. Cameron had just turned 21 when the 75th Artillery Brigade of Fort Sill, Okla. was deployed to Iraq in April of 2003. But their training had been in high tempo since September 11, 2001. “That evening my commander called a formation, all 400 of us, he said, I remember very clearly, ‘You bet your ass whoever did this is going to pay,’” Mr. Cameron recalls.
While in Iraq, the young private was promoted to sergeant and to assistant chief of his platoon of 12. When he came back to the U.S. in December of 2003 he was, he says, irrevocably changed: “They gave me all the tools I needed to shut down, and be a good soldier, and do all the things soldiers need to do, and it’s tough to turn that back on.”
From the onset, Mr. Cameron says his family was viciously opposed to the war, but he believed in his government. “I just believed that in the end, I hoped that in the end, the people in Iraq would be better off,” he says.
But his belief was progressively challenged: “As more people were killed, more people felt compelled to fight against us.” At first, he remembers, “there was a certain amount of complacency [among his platoon]. We felt like we were trusted, but that wasn’t the case. The attacks got more frequent, the roadside bomb thing started to happen ... We were educated on rules of engagement, about what to look for — like wires coming out of a burlap sack — but they got so efficient at fighting back with whatever tools they have, and as the resistance grew, it grew stronger.”
One of the hardest things, something he’ll never forget, Mr. Cameron says, is how people looked at them: “There was just this sort of uneasy calm, and the way people would look at you, these placid stares, people my age just staring at us.”
Although he grew up in a military family — his father was a career officer in the Air Force — Mr. Cameron says he never thought he’d become a soldier. After high school, he was planning to stay in his Iowa hometown and go to community college when Army recruiters came calling. “I wasn’t really ready for college, so it seemed like a good opportunity,” he says. “I would get out of my hometown, be independent, make a salary, and be able to go to school wherever I wanted, maybe art school, and I wanted to prove something to myself.
“It’s complex, I feel, but being a young person, it made sense; when you sit down with the recruiter they paint a pretty picture and tell you what you want to hear.”
Now, Mr. Cameron says, like so many other young veterans he is on a life-long journey toward healing. But he says he feels very fortunate to have discovered healing in the Zen-like process of making paper: “I became obsessive about papermaking. I couldn’t stop. It kept me grounded. I tried to learn as much as I could about book-binding and paper.
“But the pages I made were all blank. I made hundreds of sheets that were empty. I still had to find my voice.”
It took the first Warrior Writers workshop — created and facilitated by Lovella Calica, also an IVAW member — he attended in April 2007, for Mr. Cameron to find his voice. Now, trained in Ms. Calica’s methods, Mr. Cameron will be helping to facilitate workshops for other veterans. Part of his own healing, he believes, is also in the telling of his stories through performance poetry.
Mr. Cameron says whatever another soldier believes about the war, there is a universal truth to all of their stories: “Other veterans, regardless of whether they will say the same thing about the specifics of the war, or if we believe the same things politically, the stories, the essays, the poetry always, always resonates and is appreciated.”
“There’s this horrible, horrible reality that people have to endure, certainly the people from the countries we’re invading.” But also, Mr. Cameron says, the soldiers.
He hopes to expand the Warrior Writers workshops nationwide and to include veterans from all wars: Bosnia, the first Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Iraq.
“Writing, performing and papermaking have been my healing. My young life was taken, but I believe I’ve been given another one,” he says.
You are not my enemy/my child my self./Our blood is the same.
You are not my enemy /my memories and rage.
— Drew Cameron, from his poem You Are Not My Enemy in collection Re-making Sense.
Warrior Writers will be selling their combat-paper books of original poetry at the Che’s Lounge event, Monday, July 21, 8 p.m. and at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, Saturday, July 26, from 3 to 8 p.m. where they will be performing, offering paper-making workshops, and presenting their art and installations in a benefit to raise finishing funds for Iraq Paper Scissors, a film being made by former Vineyarder Sara Nesson.
From Wednesday, July 23 to Saturday July 27, the Martha’s Vineyard Peace Council is presenting a travelling outdoor, all-day exhibit on the Iraq War with 67 pairs of military boots, representing the fallen soldiers from Massachusetts.