For vets, recurring memory of taking a life can rend an injury, again and again
“One Sunday I was an acolyte at the altar, and three months later I was killing people,” he said.
In my 10 years working with military veterans, this may have been my soberest encounter. Since ancient Greece, the trauma of war has been tracked by a history of terms — shell shock, battle fatigue, soldier’s heart, post-traumatic stress disorder—and more recently, a distinct, though related condition, 'moral injury.'
Most of us know the disturbing statistics: more Vietnam veterans have died by suicide than died on the battlefield; 20 veterans take their own lives every day; at a rate 50% higher than that of the civilian population.
Research shows four in 10 combat veterans suffer moral injury — defined as "perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs."
I have yet to meet a veteran for whom killing is less than a haunting moral question. Long after coming home, and the flesh wounds have healed, the recurring memory of having taken a life can rend an injury, again and again.
When I asked the acolyte-turned-soldier how he coped, he replied, “You learn to live with it.”
So, I asked myself, what part did I play in these moral injuries? Wasn’t I responsible for sending you to war, and electing those who did? How is it that of the two of us, you are the one to bear the burden?
Yet, how can I dress these moral injuries, now that they have happened?
According to professor of psychiatry, Jonathan Shay, whose groundbreaking work coined the term, “It’s the veteran themselves, healing each other, that belong at center stage. We are the stagehands — get the lights on, sweep out the gum wrappers, count the chairs, make sure it’s a safe and warm enough place…”
What might this mean for the rest of us? It means recognizing our obligation to facilitate our veterans' healing. It means knowing that it is never too late to fully welcome them back.
It means giving them their own center stage in the home they risked their lives to protect.
Christopher Carlisle is an Episcopal priest living in western Massachusetts who founded Building Bridges Veterans Initiative, which hosts veteran peer support communities. His forthcoming novel is titled “Pickett’s Dream.”