Veterans Healing From 'Moral Injury'

People watch as the Veterans' Day parade makes its way up 5th Avenue in New York November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
People watch as the Veterans' Day parade makes its way up 5th Avenue in New York November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

A piercing truth hovers over Veterans Day observances: on the battlefield, everyone is a victim.

Decisions about war and peace churn up complicated moral questions, especially for soldiers. They bear the heavy burden of carrying out orders and making split-second choices that can determine who lives or dies.

And one of the outcomes can be "moral injury," when a soldier witnesses -- or participates in -- acts of war that violate their conscience.

How veterans cope with moral injury as well as effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are examined in a new Humankind public radio documentary, Healing the Trauma of War, which airs starting this week on NPR worldwide.

You can download or listen online. (It's presented in Parts 7 and 8 of The Power of Nonviolence series.)

"Killing in most cultures is regarded as criminal activity," says Rita Nakashima Brock, theologian and author of Soul Repair. "Some people can kill under orders and come to terms with that, as 'they did their job'...Other people respond by feeling that some line that made them a moral person was crossed, and they no longer feel like they're good."

One veteran, Bill Simon of Santa Rosa, California, tells how he's received treatment to help him work through a haunting tragedy that occurred on a military flight from Chu Lai to Danang during his service in the Vietnam War. His crew passed a garden, where they spotted a young Vietnamese man and woman quietly working the land, accompanied by young children.

"About fifteen minutes later we get a call. This guy, he had a loaded bomber and he wanted to drop his ordinance somewhere - didn't want to take it back. Suddenly the pilot thinks, 'Yeah, we have a target for you.'"

Simon recalls: "Bombs were dropped. We came back, and we basically just, you know, kind of vaporized them. You couldn't even see what was there, just big holes. And that was really disturbing for me to see. And I completely denied that for 40 years, probably.

"This is fairly recent that I did this type of therapy. And when I did the therapy I kept remembering more and more details of the event, which I had completely repressed...But I couldn't deal with it. I just had to, you know, deny it, and go numb."

In other cases, moral injury occurs when soldiers confront a human need they're unable to meet. Manny Salazar, a former policeman now living in Washington, remembers an event from his time serving as a U.S. counter-intelligence agent in Afghanistan. A local woman he'd worked with came to the gate of the base seeking help with her six-month-old child, who had been burned:

"And we couldn't provide the help. I had to turn her away, even though I knew I had a staff fully capable of providing some kind of aid. At the time the medical rules of engagement did not allow us to care for and take care of kids. Even though I know everyone wanted to do it, but those rules were set up, and we had to follow them."

Manny has been dealing with PTSD since he returned to the States in 2015. Today, he suffers from migraine headaches and has battled sleep deprivation. Manny asked me to conduct our interview in a low-lit room to minimize his eye strain.

After returning from the war zone, he says, "I didn't talk to anyone for a good two and a half, three months. I'm working through these things step by step. I was struggling to get back to the person that everyone knew me as I was, both in my civilian career and my military career."

Finally, Manny sought help from staff at the V.A. Medical Center in Washington, where chaplains are bound by confidentiality in their consulations with veterans. Rev. Carol Ramsey-Lucas there has counseled many returning soldiers grappling with questions of moral injury and PTSD. And they reach out in different ways.

"Sometimes veterans will circle around a whole lot of care for very specific physical reasons," she says. "And they have plenty of traumatic situations to talk about, but they'll avoid this one - where they did something, or didn't stop something from happening, or witnessed something. But really that's the core of all the physical symptoms, and they circle around it for a long time...It's so painful. It's guilt and shame, feeling a disconnect from God."

A common pattern is for veterans to become personally withdrawn. Some manage to break out of that isolation by attending peer-support groups, where they interact with others who've been in combat and know this struggle directly.

Says Daniel Libby, a readjustment counselor at the Oakland, California Vet Center, who has worked with many veterans who've suffered moral injury: "If you feel like you're this horrible person, you know, I've worked with a lot of men and women who, they're not terrible people! Even some of the men and women that I've worked with who have done some horrible things, they're not horrible people, yet they feel like horrible people.

"But they're not horrible people because what do they do is they isolate themselves. Part of the reason they isolate themselves is because they don't want to hurt anybody else."