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UNC Charlotte Veterans Use Uniforms As Art Canvas

A portion of the screen print Godinez created with paper made from his uniform.

On Thursday, communities celebrated veterans with banquets and parades. A group of former soldiers at UNC Charlotte marked the holiday by turning their combat uniforms into poster art. It took Felipe Godinez about 45 minutes to completely demolish the camouflage Army fatigues he wore in Iraq. "You don't think that it would take a lot to cut up a uniform, but it does," says Godinez. With a sharp pizza cutter-type tool, Godinez cut the fatigues into one-inch pieces. Then it went into a special mixing machine with water and sharp blades that turned it into a slimy pulp "Feels pretty cool - like oatmeal," says Godinez with a chuckle. The pulp was strained and dried it into flat sheets of rough tan-colored paper. They're poster-sized and have been silk-screened with silhouettes based on pictures Godinez took in Iraq. "This right here is me holding my M-16 across my chest," explains Godinez. A collaboration called "Combat Paper" does these workshops with veterans around the country. The result gives veterans a sort of "conversation starter" to talk with other people about their military service. It's also a form of therapy. Godinez says he was a little hesitant, at first, to cut up his uniform. As a soldier, he was taught to respect it. "Some people might see tearing up your uniform as not respecting your uniform," says Godinez. "But it actually is because most people when they're done with uniform - they sell it to pawn shop or just put it up in a closet and never see it again. And this way, this artwork's gonna be on my wall." Plus, Godinez says he kind of enjoyed all of the memories that came back to him. The fun times he had with his Army buddies "driving humvees around and hitting all the bumps at top speed, seeing how far we could go without getting stuck." Godinez actually joined the military to find that fraternity. When September 11th happened, he was engrossed in the TV mini-series "Band of Brothers." It inspired him to enlist and after basic training, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division - jumping from planes just like the soldiers in the TV series. When it came time to turn his army uniform into a work of art, Godinez had a choice: Should he use the desert camouflage from his first deployment, or the updated uniform from his more recent Iraq tour? He chose the first because that was the deployment where all of his team came home alive. ."And the second set of uniforms that I wore over there, you know we lost a friend," says Godinez. "He passed away in my arms when I was over there." So that uniform is still packed away in his parents' house back in Durham. It sort of felt too sacred to cut up for art. And maybe too painful. Godinez' close friend - Specialist Michael J. Crutchfield - committed suicide on base two days before Christmas 2006. "It affected me a lot cause like I was giving him CPR after he had shot himself in the heart, so I guess I gave him his last breath," says Godinez. "The one positive way that affected me was I saw how fragile life was - one day you're here, the next second you're gone." "So when I came home I knew I could do more with my life than be in the military," adds Godinez." Now he's a political science major at UNC Charlotte. This year Godinez helped revive the Veterans' Club on campus so he and the hundreds of other veterans at the university can maintain the camaraderie that drew him to the military in the first place. It was his idea to bringing the Combat Paper project to town so they could turn their military uniforms into works of art.