Written by Vicki Lane
For quite some time PTSD has been considered to be the most common and prevalent wound of recent wars—PTSD involves fear, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares.
However, some leading mental health experts are finding moral injury to be an even more insidious wound of war. Moral injury can shake the very moral fiber of service men and women. It violates deeply held moral and ethical values and beliefs that are rooted in our spiritual, religious, cultural, and family life. Our moral upbringing typically teaches us about fairness, right from wrong, do unto others, and the value of life—but many of these teachings are not always compatible with the horrors, chaos, and uncertainties of war. Warriors in combat can be caught in situations in which they have no opportunity to choose between right and wrong; often there is no clear distinction between enemy insurgents and innocent civilians.
The morally injured feel shame, guilt, grief, sorrow, and regret. They often wonder how they could possibly be the good person they thought they were if they could kill another human being, fail to save a “brother’s” life, witness human suffering and do nothing, become numb to atrocities of war.
My first introduction to a veteran experiencing moral injury was almost two years ago. This veteran shared that, six months after returning from Iraq, he left his base without authorization—to kill himself. Fortunately, he was found in time.
I began working with this veteran about a year after this event and he slowly began opening up and describing what had led him to contemplate suicide. He told me while he was in Iraq he was ordered to fire rockets into civilian homes even though it was known that inside, along with the insurgents, were innocent family members. He told me that the first time he was ordered to fire, he was completely devastated and did not think he could do it. He said even though there were RPGs being fired at him and his brothers, it was gut wrenching to fire back and he became physically ill afterwards. He shared that the same scenario played out numerous times during his deployment, and although he found it difficult each and every time, he nonetheless fired on the homes—knowing that there were civilians being killed or injured.
He shared that he thought about that frequently after returning home and wondered what kind of person can kill innocent women and children? He told me he was raised to value human life, to treat others kindly, and he could not forgive himself for the things he did while in Iraq. He shared that he used to think of himself as a good person, that he joined the military to help protect our country, and that he used to be proud of who he was. But then he discovered he wasn’t the person he thought he was, and that he was not a good person after all. How could he be? He killed innocent men, women, and children.
This veteran withdrew from his family and friends because he didn’t feel he deserved their love. He shared that he felt ashamed and guilty for his actions in Iraq and eventually began to believe he did not deserve to live when so many had died “at his hands.” This veteran was drastically suffering from moral injury.