“Moral Injury”

Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22, as the boy walked home in his Latino neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California. The Iraq War veteran claims he mistook the eighth-grader’s toy rifle for a real one.

A month later another Army vet, Paul Duffy, took his own life nearby. Duffy, as some friends called him, was found by his wife hanging from a rope in the writer’s cabin he had built outside his Tomales home by the Pacific Ocean. Far more veterans of the American wars on Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan committed suicide than were killed in combat; the number of suicides by vets increases.

How might these two deaths be related?

Twenty members of the Veterans Writing Group, in which Duffy participated, gathered on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, for our seasonal all-day meeting, to remember our comrade. We sat in a circle in the comfortable home of a surviving World War II vet in the Redwood Empire of Sonoma County in Northern California. Many of us had participated in the group since near its inception over 20 years ago.

This group means a lot to me, as someone raised in a military family that moved to a new post about every three years. It has provided one of the longest-lasting relationships during my nearly 70 years of life, and has helped my writing and contributed to my mental health.

Many of us speak of the VWG as a “family” that adds stability, safety, security, and confidence to our lives, as well as something to look forward to.

“Moral Injury”

These two deaths raise “deep and troubling questions,” said veteran Joe Lamb. “In how many unexpected ways are Paul’s suicide and Andy’s killing similar? What is the effect of the violence on their communities? Will these ripples of violence claim other victims? What is it about ‘moral injury’ that makes humans more prone to both suicide and violence against others?”

Suicides can stimulate those left behind to consider taking their own lives. One of my college students, a Marine, committed suicide, leaving three young children. He was one of the best, most active students in the class—no visible signs of depression.

Duffy helped me research and write about the emerging concept of “moral injury.” Some prefer this term to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to describe the invisible injuries many veterans acquire from their military service. I used quotations from him in various published articles.

Newsweek’s Dec. 10, 2012, issue describes “moral injury” as “the psychological burden of killing.” Some 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 the 2012 winter meeting of the VWG. “‘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. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.”

Veteran Paul Duffy Takes His Life

“Our winter meeting is when we go into the darkness,” Nancy Brink opened the session. “Then we come into the light,” she added. Near the end of our time together, our writing teacher Maxine Hong Kingston said that she is not always sure that we will arrive at the lightness. “This is the suicide of a writer who did not finish his work,” Maxine noted; Duffy had been working on a novel.

Duffy had an intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable quality about him. Sometimes he would sing or even stand up at our meetings and dance. He was so alive, communicative, and willing to engage.

“Paul was a unique individual with a wicked sense of humor,” wrote a neighbor. “Most people here in Tomales had a reaction of: ‘But I just saw him yesterday,’ or ‘He was helping with a sheetrock job,’ or ‘He stopped in to say hello on his daily walk thru town.’ I think everybody felt like they were one of Paul’s best friends. He had that effect on people.”

“I’ve lost six people this year, three by suicide, including two young people,” Maxine reported. “It is good to attend memorials and have ceremonies to help you through it,” she added.

“This is the seventh veteran who has gone this way,” former military medic Ted Sexauer read from his poem—some by alcoholism and one by a rifle.

Denial, anger, sadness, and grief were among the diverse feelings expressed in response to Duffy’s suicide. The morning session, as we retired to write, ended with Maxine evoking a Buddhist tradition, after someone dies, of giving a name to the person’s departed spirit. The name she proposed was “Bearer of the Story Without an End,” partly since Duffy never finished his novel.

Vet Erick Gelhaus Kills Andy Lopez

As we spoke and when we wrote at the VWG gathering, the differing yet related deaths of Duffy and teenager Andy Lopez rushed in on me. Seconds after shouting at Andy, deputy Gelhaus shot him dead through the heart with his first shot. He then fired seven more times, hitting the dead boy’s body another six times. Gelhaus then handcuffed him, to make sure.

Something triggered Gelhaus, perhaps a memory, and he opened fire without thinking, in the Wild West style: “Shoot first and ask questions later.” After a brief paid break from work, this killer cop was back on duty less than seven weeks later, this time at a desk rather than in the streets. The community continues its persistent, vocal plea for justice for Andy and protection from such militarized killer cops.

Gelhaus went from the killing fields of Iraq to a Latino neighborhood where he faced other brown-skinned people, where boys play cops and robbers, as I did on bases around the world. Gelhaus’ partner, driving in the same squad car, did not fire a single shot. Perhaps he realized that the boy was not a threat.

The response by the marginalized Latino community has been strong, enduring, and peaceful. Latinos and their allies have had numerous nonviolent marches and rallies attended by over a thousand people to demand justice for Andy and many prayer vigils attended by hundreds. His killing has become a national and international story.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are each around 25% Latino, which is also their fastest growing population. The aroused Latino population decrying the killing of one of its young sons shows signs of making some needed changes, like making the vacant lot where Andy was killed into a park and convening a Civilian Review Board of the police.

Andy’s mother Sujey Lopez wrote a Thanksgiving letter addressed to Gelhaus, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, and those “responsible for the death of my son.”

“May this day of Thanksgiving be unforgettable for all of you, never forgetting my misery and the suffering of my family,” she writes. “You didn’t even give my son time to face you. You murdered him like it was nothing, killed like a bird or raccoon on the side of the road.”

“Go on, laugh, drink, while I comfort myself by hugging my son’s ashes,” she concludes. When I see this mother and Andy’s father at meetings, their faces are the saddest I have ever seen, making a lasting impression.

Gelhaus’ post-combat experiences differ markedly from Duffy’s. As with some veterans, Duffy returned to Vietnam frequently, where he worked with children in hospitals. As he explained last year: “I’ve gone back to Vietnam a few times to say that I’m sorry. 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.

Farming, Nature, and Remembering

From living and working on a farm for over 20 years now, this writer deals with death more regularly than most urban dwellers. My chickens die often. I see many graceful vultures circling above or on the ground eating dead deer and other wildlife. Birds fly into the windows on my ranch house and fall to the ground. Rural roads are full of road kills of possums, raccoons, and other wildlife. Friends bury their cats and dogs on my acreage. Death is a normal part of living on farms.

I watch many things decay on my compost pile and then feed the soil that nourishes my crops. I need to compost the distinct but related deaths of Andy and Duffy, watering them with my tears. A puppy recently adopted me, so I have been studying canine assisted education and equine assisted education, which an increasing number of vets are employing. The four footeds have a lot to teach us two footeds.

“Many of the veterans that I conversed with over the past four to five years said that connecting with nature, in whatever form, connects them to life in a way that nothing else has since they left the military,” says Stephanie Westlund. Her book Field Exercises: How Veterans are Healing Themselves through Farming and Outdoor Activities is scheduled for release in June, 2014.

How might we respond to the deaths of Duffy and Andy? One way is to express our feelings and write about them. Another way is to engage in actions to reduce such incidents happening in the future.

Our Veterans Writing Group is based on Buddhist principles, which include accepting impermanence and realizing that “this, too, shall pass.” But practicing those principles can be difficult. I want these deaths to decrease, rather than increase.

Military and Civilian Communities Differ

Deputy Gelhaus turned his moral injury outward, killing an innocent boy walking home. Duffy turned his injury inward, killing himself, hurting his wife, son, and others who loved him. They both took their unhealed war wounds and wounded others.

“The self-destructive nature of suicide can continue for generations,” said Oakland artist and musician Larry Stefl. His grandfather killed himself, as did his father, with the same military pistol. “The impact of suicide can be a death sentence for survivors,” Stefl added, who also lost a sister to suicide. His friends took this seriously when he was about to reach the age that his father took his life. Stefl has survived two decades longer than his father, with the support of friends.

I was born into the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and then served as a non-combatant officer in the Army during the American War on Vietnam. There are big differences in military communities and the civilian communities. The cultural differences are important.

“You can take the boy out of the military, but it is harder to take the military out of the boy,” goes an old saying. As someone who was militarized for some 20 years, I have been spending nearly half a century working to de-militarize myself.

So as not to be misunderstood, let me say that I continue to honor certain values and virtues that I learned from the military, such as the following: discipline, follow-through, keeping commitments, helping protect others, duty, country love, having a mission, team-work, and seeing beyond merely the self.

In many indigenous communities warriors are welcomed home from battle by rituals that help re-integrate them into civilian life. For example, among some people the women hold the men for as long as it takes them to break down and cry, sometimes even asking for forgiveness.

When people “enter the military, weeks are spent breaking down ingrained social taboos against violence and killing,” said Karen Saari of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. “These relatively innocent boys – and now girls – are taught to kill. Military duty follows. Then these veterans are discharged back into society. But there is no period where the taboos against violence and killing are put back. When someone has been in combat, there should be a mandatory period where there is some kind of decompression and re-learning of how to cope in our society.”

Gelhaus was not re-civilized back into civilian culture, as he should have been. He has a long record of violence and gun use. Civilians need protection from him and other vets-turned-cops who fail to deal with their “moral injury.” Instead, police forces today have been increasingly militarized by their training and advanced weapons of destruction. Unless this is changed dramatically, we may see more murders of innocent children and adults.

Duffy, on the other hand, worked hard for decades to heal himself by doing good work back in Vietnam, in his home town, and in our Veterans Writing Group. Many thoughtful veterans, like Duffy, do reflect on their wartime experiences and work hard to transform them into positive contributions to society.

At the end of our VWG gathering, Maxine noted that “Suicide is contagious.” Our host, Marg Starbuck, an artist in her 80s, suggested that we circle up and hold hands. Maxine later wrote, “I felt that we promised one another that we would not kill ourselves.”

MORE INFORMATION: Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.


Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.