One of the critically-acclaimed movies slated for release this Christmas is Lone Survivor, the true story of SEAL team in Afghanistan faced with an impossible moral dilemma while on a mission, and the aftermath of their decision. As American soldiers continue to return home from the front lines, many must deal with the consequences of the difficult moral choices under extreme conditions. "Moral injury" can cause guilt and grief, or in its severest form, it can destroy the will to live. Suicides among veterans hit a record in 2012 with 349 active-duty suicides. To combat the effects of moral injury, the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock founded the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, training religious leaders on how to respond.
You may be faced with looking down your gun sight at a child with something in his or her hand and you don't know whether that's a hand grenade or a rock and they're standing next to a Humvee with people in your unit in it, and they're about to throw it into the Humvee. And if it's a grenade, you're going to lose people in your company. If it's a rock, you're going to kill a kid that was doing nothing, but throwing a rock. And there's no good choice in that.
Moral injury in veterans is the impact of war service and the moral anguish of war on moral conscience in people. People come home after they've been to war and they may have done the right thing, they may have felt all right when they came home about what they had to do to keep themselves and their own company alive.
But then, as they transition into civilian society, which has a different moral code from the military, they begin to feel uneasy or bad about things that they had to do and, even if it might have been just their duty to do it and they did their duty. That kind of thing can make you feel like a worthless human being and make you feel that no one could possibly love you anymore and lead to a state of despair and depression. We think that kind of moral injury after war is a major factor in the very high veteran suicide rates.
Moral injury is not an individual thing you can fix just through one-on-one therapy, that they really require community of support to rebuild a whole new moral identity, to develop long-range plans to build a new life. That seems to me like a mission for religious communities, especially, not only, but where do you find institutions in our society that commit to people from birth to death. Well that’s what religious life is for most people.
So I thought what if we just trained religious people on understanding what moral injury is so that they could do that work in a more focused way, in a more understanding way because I know most people in the society don't spend time talking to vets about their war experience and that's really experienced people that's not wanting to hear about it.
And, I don't know any human being that has an easy time talking about something that hurt their soul deeply. So they're not going to just volunteer things that they're feeling; guilt or shame or horror about or grief. I think there's just an enormous amount of grief that comes out of war that doesn't get processed and that is certainly something religious communities have a lot of experience in handling is rituals of grief.
I think the way a person is restored to a sense of their own goodness is that they participate in a life of the community where the things they do for other people are deeply appreciated and they have reflected back at them a sense that they are loved and appreciated for what they do.