Veterans Explore “Moral Injury”

Our Veterans Writing Group met the morning after Pearl Harbor Day for our regular winter gathering, as we have convened seasonally for twenty years. Two dozen of us came from throughout Northern California to a spacious redwood home in the Sebastopol countryside.

“Nobody wins a war. There are victors, but you lose the youth of your country,” a 94-year-old Pearl survivor reportedly said on the news. “We haven’t won any wars,” added Pearl survivor Herb Louden, 95-years-old, of Sonoma County. As I listened throughout the day to our stories and writings of veterans and others directly injured by war–ranging from World War II to Desert Storm–we felt like living proof of these statements.

But we have been busy recovering from what has recently been described as “moral injury,” which I consider a better description than the clinical term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Vets are simply not disorders; war is the disorder. Moral injury can lead to difficulty sleeping, staying in relationships, and keeping jobs. It can contribute to alcoholism, homelessness, incarceration, feeling ashamed and bad about oneself, depression, hopelessness, and the final response—suicide. Or homicide.

“War does not end when peace is declared and the troops come home. It continues in the ‘hidden wounds of war,’” writes the co-author of the book “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War,” professor Gabriella Lettin, Ph.D.

I arrived to our fourth all-day meeting of the year depressed from weeks of little sleep and nightmares after not being rehired to teach a Leadership course that I had successfully taught for three years at Sonoma State University. I felt worthless after nearly 40 years of college teaching. I had been sent back down alone into a familiar darkness.

Yet the minute I entered the room full of my buddies my spirits lifted, and continued to rise as I listened to veterans and their allies tell their stories, which ranged from the heavy-hearted to the humorous. I was strengthened to write and read out-loud to others the first rough draft of this article, thus helping being healed from some of my demons.

Most were long-time members of the group, but there are usually newcomers at each gathering. This time it included an Army combat medic who was discharged as a Conscientious Objector. Another had lost her uncle in Vietnam and recently went to the stream by which he died.

“I’ve gone back to Vietnam a few times to say that I’m sorry,” reported Paul Duffey. “We help kids with heart operations and have done about 300 a year for the last ten years.” Many vets return to that crime scene to do good work.

Former UC Berkeley professor and award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston is our writing teacher and attends most meetings. But she had just returned from Hawaii. In a Pearl Harbor Day email, she reported that a new vets writing group at San Quentin prison was using our book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” which she edited. (www.vow.vop.org.) Too many vets are in prison, homeless, or hiding out. More to come, as wars continue.

Among those who told their stories were decorated combat vets, pilots, Buddhists, filmmakers, recently homeless, a body escort for the deceased coming home, teachers, gardeners, poets, artists, a former monk, parents, and a machinist.

Our format for the day is to sit in a circle and begin with a meditation. Then we have a check-in with each person speaking briefly. We meditate again and then disperse in silence to write, returning for a pot-luck lunch that starts in silence. There is a powerful and healing intimacy in silence. In the afternoon we read out-loud what we have written and listen without judgment.

Writing from traumatic memories evokes them—though now with some distance and in a context where they can be remembered, re-framed, and discharged. Then we take a walking meditation into the tall trees, which embrace and witness us.

As tears dropped during both the morning and afternoon sessions, the grief felt throughout the room connected us. By being openly expressed and received, sadness can be released. Then the belly laughs lifted us up further. Voices that had been silenced by domestic and other forms of violence found words and receptive ears. None of us were alone anymore, but together with understanding comrades. Safety prevailed, as well as permission to speak one’s truth without judgment. Forgiveness was felt.

One of us had held the hands of four people who died during the last year, as well as the paw of a departing pet. We’re seasoned about dealing with death and wounds—to both the body and soul.

The military community differs from that of the civilian world. We are “Other,” having had unique experiences, those of us raised in military families or who saw duty in the services. The rules of appropriate behavior differ and it can be difficult to go back and forth between those two communities.

Over lunch we speak about “moral injury.” “Newsweek’s” December 10 issue reports studies about “the psychological burden of killing.” Many veterans speak about a sadness attributed to “bearing witness to evil and human suffering and seeing death and participating in it.”

“Every generation gives war trauma a different name,” explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at lunch. “Soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Moral injury, the latest term, is important because it de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, and are not the same, not at ease, troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core.”

Chung later added, “That we vets suffer moral injury, despite the tremendous suffering and anguish it brings, is actually a validation of our humanity. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.”

Suicides by veterans of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have doubled since 2004. Over 1000 vets attempt to take their lives each month. Killing or witnessing people being killed can disturb the soul.

I do not like the clinical term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It labels those of us who suffer from war trauma as being disordered. Problems we may have, but it would be better to understand that the primary disorder is war itself.

In my case, I resigned my officer’s commission in the U.S. Army to protest the American War in Vietnam, much to the disappointment of my family, which gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas. Then I moved to Chile. My trauma comes from being raised in a military family and was increased by “the other 9/11,” which happened in Chile, September 11, 1973. The U.S. supported Gen. Augusto Pinochet to topple the democratically-elected government.

Among those who were tortured and executed was my close friend Frank Teruggi, whom I had recruited to work there with me. So I carry survivor’s guilt, which contributes to “moral injury.” I can still hear Frank crying out, inside, these forty years later. 9/11 has been an anniversary date for me for many decades. Certain sounds trigger my re-wired nervous system and I am no longer fully in present time.

“It feels like I’ve lost my soul,” one vet is quoted in “Newsweek” as saying, which I can echo. So I have been working to recover from this shadow on my soul. One deep loss–such as my recent one of a teaching assignment–tends to evoke previous losses, such as mine of Frank and my family.

I co-taught a “War and Peace” course at Sonoma State University for three years, which helped me recover from moral injury, as did teaching “Identity and Global Challenges” for six semesters. I had to be professional and focus on the needs of students, though I do teach partly from emotional intelligence. I am fortunately now teaching less stressful subjects at a smaller values-based college more committed to diversity.

Many vets will be returning from the killing fields and homes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who knows where else in the near future. Iran? Pakistan? Some have worked on my organic farm. Farms can be healing places, as one works outside with plants and animals, caring for them, with fewer people around. I have written about this in books and elsewhere as agro-therapy.

Indigenous people tend to have extended rituals for welcoming warriors home and re-integrating them into civilian society. In the United States, we lack such rituals, except for the loud, chirpy parades, or we leave it up to therapists with little time. Since returning home from war is not like a football game but about killing people, perhaps we need what Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes calls a “solemn parade” in his book “What It is Like to Go to War.”

I have been to the woods with men for what is called “grief work,” after which one is often exhilarated by the release. One of the best relationships I have ever had with a woman included holding each other while we were both crying, often for a long time. We each have much to cry about, which is what ancient warriors would do after the death of a buddy.

This year, as in the past, I have had college students who descended from the holocaust and from the internment camps of Japanese here in the U.S. Though those horrific events occurred before their lives, such moral damage within a family can pass through the generations, even when not spoken about.

My World War II soldier father, for example, never spoke of his war experiences, which impaired his hearing and feeling, trying to deny and bury his experiences. He did, however, name my brother, who became a Marine, after his comrade, who died in combat.

It was left up to me, who bears my father’s name and that of my warrior grandfather, being a third, to break the lengthy Bliss lineage of war-making and embark on a journey of soul recovery. This included denying my former wife a child, since I knew I could not survive sending another Bliss to war. So now of grandfather age I am childless, though able to turn to the grandchildren of friends for their regeneration. Many veterans have trouble shifting from war zones to family life, often separating from spouses.

“My oath is to see the darkness but not be overcome by it,” newcomer Heather Box tells our vets group on the morning after Pearl Harbor Day. When her father lost his brother in Vietnam, “it has had a silent presence in our family life since then.”

To transform that moral injury, Heather traveled to find the stream by which her uncle had died and reported the following: “A Vietnamese farmer was standing by a tree that I had assumed had been there since the war, one that has stood as a witness to all the horror and all the beauty that has come across this land. I am learning from that tree to be more grounded and rooted, even in times of darkness.” Our prompt for the day was to be stimulated to write about trees, as we sat in a circle here in the Redwood Empire.

Telling one’s story, and writing it down, can be healing. As for my own healing, in addition to writing and farming, I plan to play more with children, especially toddlers, as well as hang out with horses, dogs, and chickens. Since our group met, I have already been able to sleep better.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.