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Moral Injury

For the past four years, mental health professionals within the Department of Veterans Affairs have been addressing a concern that was beyond their scope for decades, even centuries.  They’ve begun talking about “wounds of the soul,” in addition to their interest in the centuries-old effects of war on the body and the mind (and also the culture).  The technical name they have attached to this malady is “moral injury,” which stems from traumatic events that involve “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  These events may involve killing or harming others (especially innocent civilians), witnessing death, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders perceived as gross moral violations.  Anyone who’s been in hard combat knows that, in the fog of war, terrible things happen and that the warrior doesn’t have the luxury (not to mention the time!) to make thoughtful and careful decisions. 

Many of our younger vets, when they finally feel safe enough to trust us and talk to us, are describing their tortured consciences and their anxiety that what they’ve done is unforgivable.  “How does God feel about what I did or what I failed to do?” is a question we often hear.  This cry for help is usually accompanied by deep guilt, isolation, shame, low self-image, self-condemnation, an overwhelming sense of loss, and nihilism (in which nothing matters any more. In Vietnam, one of the most common phrases was, “Don’t mean nuthin'”.)

For decades, Point Man has been seeing these “spiritual” symptoms and hearing the plea for relief.  We believe that the answer is found in several steps: (1) validating the veteran’s experience, assuring him or her that these thoughts and feelings are normal, (2) allowing them to tell the story, to “confess” whatever is troubling them, (3) to point them to the One who can forgive them, and to create rituals of absolution that will confirm the truth of this forgiveness (i.e. Communion and Baptism, etc.) (4) making amends to those they’ve hurt, if possible, or find others to help (survivor mission).

I’ll be writing a lot more on this topic, since it weaves together the three themes of my life over the past half-century: the Christian message of redemption, the insights of modern psychology, and the grusome reality of warfare.  Stay tuned, dear readers.

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