By Pastor Duane Larson, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston

Duane Larson

Some real facts do catch our attention, at least for a while. The fact that the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous finds in us a certain glibness if we live in the Sunbelt. Other facts are more arresting. The fact that on average 22 active military service people and veterans commit suicide daily might catch our attention enough for us to ask why. If we go beyond the headlines for answers, we discover that the answer is not limited to depression and/or PTSD, truly tragic as they are. Something more complex has been recognized, first in military psychology circles, as also in feminist trauma studies. Over the last five years, academic research circles have taken on the question in a big way. Veterans and military hospitals have followed suit. Some journalists over the past few years have noted the problem in occasional articles. Finally, in the past five years, some religious communities have noticed and taken caring steps. I refer to Moral Injury, the acronym (because every clinical phenomenon needs an acronym) for which is MI.

We religious caregivers have known MI in more surface terms as guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are part of MI, but more as symptoms than as the original trauma. If any of us clergy have ever presided at a funeral for a veteran, chances are that at the post-service reception another vet has approached us, beer in hand, introduced himself (still mostly hims, because of combat history), and then said out of the blue, “Thanks for what you do, Padre. But I’ll tell ya, God will never forgive me for what I had to do back then. My battle buddy—insert deceased’s name here—is at least at peace now.”

MI is not yet “clinically” defined in the DSM, but the proffered definitions converge. My own, with my co-author, Jeff Zust (Care for the Sorrowing Soul: Healing Moral Injuries from Military Service and Implications for the Rest of Us, 2017), is as follows. “Moral Injury is the complex ‘soul’ wound that results from a person’s inability to resolve the difference between one’s idealized values and one’s perceived experiences. This wound produces a chain of emotions and maladaptive behaviors that corrode character and damage an individual’s capacity for living.”

MI occurs when one’s morality is betrayed by a trusted authority (cf. the captain of the USS Dubuque) or when one must choose between two immoral actions, the familiar “Catch 22.” Those who suffer from MI suffer the tension between their moral ideals and the “necessary evil” into which we citizens send them. “Thanking them for their service” is not enough and may even be further damaging for the MI sufferer. It also may be cheap salve for the civilian’s unacknowledged complicity in moral evil. It is notable that ancient societies used dramatized liturgies of lament and closure—which the whole populace was required to attend—that didn’t hold back on dramatizing the evil and noble acts of a campaign once concluded, whether won or lost. After these rituals, the veterans returned “wholly” to civilian life. Interestingly, indigenous communities here in the US have the better track record for healing MI in their veterans, in great part because they practice similar ritual returns to community life.

Some of the scenarios may be familiar, if not yet commonly understood. A sniper several hundred yards out, sees a child wearing a heavy jacket come out to play at an intersection approached by the sniper’s unit. Is the child wearing a bomb vest under the jacket? The sniper decides he must take the shot, kills the child, only to learn that the child was there to play. This could be a scene from “American Sniper,” about which Navy Seal Chris Kyle was deeply troubled. He had one way of coping with his dis-ease. Responses vary. The prompt is the same in fact, for a drone operator located in a trailer outside Las Vegas. One case study tells how an operator experienced his MI after concluding his shift. Chris Kyle tried to deal with his guilt by helping out other vets, but always with deep ambivalence. The drone operator took a call from his wife to pick up milk and eggs on the way home and found himself collapsed in tears an hour later in the dairy aisle. Veterans who served on the USS Dubuque experienced major depressions years after their captain had ordered them not to receive Vietnamese boat people onto the ship, only to watch the sea-tossed victims drown or be eaten by sharks.

These scenarios abound. They are not limited to war crimes. They happen outside military life. But it appears that military service-people are the canaries in the coal mine. They presage an epidemic. If there’s an upside, it is this: MI shows that human beings have a conscience, a soul, whatever you want to call it. And experts who have given the name MI to what has been recognized for at least 3000 years (see military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America) now explicitly state the faith leaders and religious caregivers must partner in the healing of MI sufferers.

So what can we religious types do? Of course, we refrain from civil religious displays that not only confuse church and state, but put the cheapest Band-Aids on deep spiritual wounds. We can convene regular conversations between veterans in our congregations and civilian members who have the capacity to hear wrenching stories that could not be told, sometimes for decades, for lack of understanding ears. We can open ourselves to learning what  all those patches and acronyms are about in military subculture, just as we do more enthusiastically with other sub-cultures with a better than a neo-colonialist attitude.

We can check out what other religious caregivers around the country and world are doing. At Christ the King, for example, we held brief public liturgies for all the traffic to see each morning for a couple of weeks up until Veterans Day, a key part being that each day we hung 22 symbolic dog tags on a “tree.” A Veterans Day evening service of “Lament and Honor” without the nationalistic trappings was a profound healing beginning for deeper ministry and community outreach. It also birthed a new cross-general coalition of veterans in the congregation that we had recognized theretofore; their honesty and new solidarity, with each other and the civilian “stronghearts” who could be with them, was a powerful revelation of what the Gospel and honest lament can achieve toward personal and communal healing.

And, of course, check out the growing literature; beyond the military, it is now addressing the medical profession, policing, diplomacy, and the refugee/immigration crisis; and all of these having learned much from feminist approaches in trauma studies. I still hold high Serene Jones’ excellent Trauma and Grace (2009) as a necessary very readable intro. This spring a new book arrives that is meant especially for the “popular” audience, including us in the faith community. Moral Injury: A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement, edited by Brad Kelle (Lexington Books) is due out next month. There you’ll find the latest theologically, psychologically, biblically, and practically on MI including a chapter I wrote about current pastoral and congregational examples of caring for MI sufferers around the country.

Congregation leaders are pressured on all sides always to do something more and something else. But it doesn’t take much to have some acquaintance with MI. The latest virus gets our factual attention bigtime. But MI, now remembered and newly named, spiritually decimates military service-members and civilians, including us who do not recognize our complicity and agency in the dis-ease. And MI is not quarantined. Just to be more familiar with this pandemic will strengthen the ministry required to redress a public spiritual health crisis.

Pastor Duane Larson, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston