Veterans Day musings on moral injury

Note: I know it’s been awhile since I posted here: reasons too boring. But it made sense to share today’s Veterans Day op-ed — which focuses on a theme that ties together s0 much of why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

Air Force analyst Heather Lea Linebaugh never deployed, but she still saw combat, as a participant in the newest layer called “drone warfare.”  “I have nightmares to this day of women I have seen killed, children I have seen lost in vain, fathers who will never return to their families, and soldiers who will never say goodbye to their families,” Linebaugh wrote this past June, not long after I saw her speak at Fort Meade, Maryland. I contacted her almost immediately thereafter; she was voicing an ache I’d rarely heard articulated so well in years of working with and writing about soldiers and vets.

I knew, therefore, that Linebaugh would be my first Veterans Day voice this year.

Rita-BrockClose by would  be that of Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock (left), described in a New York Times  profile as “tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called ‘moral injury.’”

Daughter of a World War II veteran and Vietnam War  medic, Brock helped create the Soul Repair Center to go beyond the clinical in approaching these questions. Now based at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, the Center has attracted Iraq vets like Michael Yandell, 28, who worked on a bomb disposal team is now a seminarian at Brock’s school, telling the Times “It’s not that you lose your ability to tell right from wrong, but things don’t seem so clear anymore. For me, it’s whether or not what I did, did any good.”  Yandell, like Linebaugh, is among the new generation refusing to call combat trauma a mental illness.

Moral injury, writes former Army surgeon general Elspeth Ritchie, is  “an important concept to help understand the experiences of our service members.” The  term was first coined by psychiatrist and MacArthur Award-winning “genius” Jonathan Shay, in his iconic Odysseus in America:  “Betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Shay knew from his decades of work with Vietnam vets that “the consequences for those still on active duty range from a loss of motivation and enjoyment, resulting in attrition from the service at the next available moment, to passive obstructionism, goldbricking, and petty theft, to outright desertion . . . sabotage, fragging, or treason. In a war, the consequences are catastrophic.”  And afterward, he wrote two years ago in Daedalus, that betrayal puts land mines in a soldier’s heart: “The body codes moral injury as physical attack and reacts with the same massive mobilization” in response.

Amid the current epidemic of suicides among veterans (at last count, 22 per day), the Veterans Administration has started to notice the injury. The VA’s Shira Maguen  distinguished it from the more-familiar-sounding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: “There is no threshold for establishing the presence of moral injury,” she wrote. “Rather, at a given point in time, a Veteran may have none, or have mild to extreme manifestations. Furthermore, transgression is not necessary for a PTSD diagnosis nor does PTSD sufficiently capture moral injury, or the shame, guilt, and self-handicapping behaviors that often accompany moral injury.”  Those words and Shay’s definitions of the term even made it into this terrific NPR graphic essay, and vets are being able to raise these issues with people around them.

Most essentially,the new generation  challenges us to look at our own moral injury in these wars. “Moral injuries are not about benefits or blame. They’re not about treatment or medications. They’re not about disability. They are about our society and our moral values,” writes Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine in the Massachusetts Review. “A moral injury is not inherently the same thing as a war crime, though clearly the two ideas overlap. But when we talk about war crimes, we seek justice; when we talk about moral injuries, we seek a deeper understanding of our humanity.Like Heather Linebaugh, Boudreau is less interested in his own trauma than in its implications in our war-besotted nation.

Other new vets are making common cause with veterans overseas, reaching out to Combatants for Peace in Israel, which works to end the occupation of the West Bank along with  Breaking the Silence, which has posted nearly 1,000 testimonials   on what they saw when serving there. All of these newer groups emphasize that it’s not about the vets own personal trauma, at least not exclusively. Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence, in a recent interview, used the Hebrew phrase yorim u’vochim, “shooting and crying,” to describe the limits of such testimonials for enacting change. “It’s easy to find people having regrets – saying ‘they forced us to be evil.’ The vast majority of soldiers will admit that,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that many more testifiers suffered from moral injuries,” he added, “but we’re also aware of the fact that we are not victims but rather the victimizers.”

Thus, Gvaryahu’s Breaking the Silence “has a political goal: to create a constituency in Israel for ending  the occupation of the West Bank.  Tyler Boudreau founded founded the Iraq Veterans’ Refugee Aid Association (IVRAA), and in 2010  testified along with hundreds of other young vets at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War. And  last month, Heather Linebaugh co-founded Front Lines International, an international media-based initiative which presents equally stories from both sides of the “front line.”

These days, Linebaugh is training to be a massage therapist, doing yoga and taking care of herself — which for her includes her work with Front Lines International. As she told Facebook in August, “[After]  finishing my shifts at my normal job, I’m heading straight home to do work for my cause and [my] research for my mission to educate on peace and ending cultural misunderstanding and needless violence due to the War and Violence paradigms that exist in our time. This, at times, can be exhausting, but I am more alive, enlightened and in love with the world than ever before in my life.  I will never stop.”

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