Volunteers of America National President Mike King Discusses Moral Injury & Soul Repair

Mike King, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, discusses moral injury and soul repair and their important relevance to the clients and work of Volunteers of America.


Mike King:

625,000 deaths in the Civil War. How does that rank among all time? From all the wars that we have fought, which war do you think had the greatest amount of casualties? It was the Civil War. World War II finishes second behind that, even in the number, even in the raw number, but when you take it past the raw number, where they're in the 400s. But when you take it past the raw number, take it past the percentage of the population that existed at the time in America. What our general population was.

In the time of the Civil War, that represented almost 2% of the entire population. When you take the wounded and add it to that, another 281,000, then a full 3% of the whole population was either wounded or dead from the Civil War out of America. World War II, it was 0.3%, and we think of that as having had great impact, and it did. Nothing comes close to this. We've never had anything close to this since then, as far as the number of people devastated by this war. Thirty years hence, let's take it even deeper than that.

Many people serving in that war, at the time, were teens, were older teens. It wasn't like it is now. Literally, those teens now would be 45ish, approaching 50. This was the age range of the dominated part of the population in their late 40s and early 50s, overwhelmed with the devastation that came from the Civil War and from folks who had served in that war. Imagine, if you will, a divided country in 1896. It was divided politically. It was divided racially, still, because you've only got 30 years since the end of slavery. In many ways, we are still fighting those battles. We are still overcoming those battles. Aren't we?

That has been the shadow of America since it's inception. We are working towards that. Think of what it was like then, thirty years hence, politically divided, racially divided, economically divided. Sound familiar? And that's without Fox and MSNBC pouring gasoline on it. Think about that. We think we've got turbulent times. Doesn't come close to this. The smoke was still clearing, literally, still clearing at that time. And yet, Maud and Ballington were serving veterans of the Civil War daily, in prison ministry, in substance abuse work, in the shelters, in the soup lines with spiritual guidance. You name it.

They invented services to veterans, in that sense, because it covered the whole country, at that moment. Mental health community had not come up with the term for PTSD yet. But remember this, as well, there was no other war as personal, and intimate, in battle as the Civil War. Sometimes fighting by hand, literally, by hand. The most intimate battle. It was trauma on steroids. That's what PTSD is constant exposure to trauma and the effect that has on the brain. No one had worst PTSD than those who fought in the Civil War and who had lived to survive it.

Now, take one more piece of this. They weren't going off to a foreign country to fight. They weren't going off to fight people that they really didn't know. Think of Iraq and Afghanistan as being one state over, one state over, and you're asked to go and kill those people that live one state over. Why? Because they live one state over. This is what they dealt with. This is the psychological impact that they dealt with, literally, the majority of the country.

You don't think reconstruction was a challenge after that? Goodness, gracious, and we still ... You see why we still deal with it today. Therefore, the term that we've become familiar with, just in recent months really, the term called moral injury. That's injury that happens to the soul from having participated in acts that are regrettable, that you were raised not to do. In this book called Soul Repair, by Doctor Rita Nakashima Brock, from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.

They created the Soul Repair Center. I want to read you their definition of moral injury, "Moral injury results when soldiers, " and you can say this to just anyone, "when someone violates their core moral beliefs. In evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings. They may even feel this after what they did was warranted and unavoidable. Killing, torturing, abusing, or failing to prevent such acts, can elicit moral injury. Veteran's Affairs agents have begun to conceptualize moral injury as separate from PTSD, as a hidden wound of war. The consequences of violating one's conscience, even if the act was unavoidable, or seemed right at the time, can be devastating. Responses include overwhelming depression, guilt, self-medication through alcohol or drugs. moral injury can lead veterans to feelings of worthlessness, remorse, and despair. They may feel, as if, they lost their souls in combat and are no longer who they were. Connecting emotionally to others becomes impossible for those trapped inside the walls of such feelings. When these consequences become overwhelming, the only relief may seem to be to leave this life behind."

That's the literary definition of moral injury. When you think about the conditions of the Civil War, think about what was happening at that point in time, in 1896. Most of the people we were serving, through these services, were suffering from some form of moral injury. That's the challenge that they were tackling.

Today, the more I learn about this, when I think about what you do, right here in Colorado, and the people that you serve. Think about this, how many of the folks we deal with today are probably suffering from some form of moral injury. Where they truly feel that they've lost their soul due to some regrettable act that they now regret. They wish they could wipe it away, but the mind won't let them wipe it away. That's what we're dealing with, in that sense.

In that way, I think we have an opportunity. As we reflect today, as we reflect today in this time, and think about what our forefathers started, how they began. The challenge they started and think about how we have more research, more resources, more opportunities to serve now, than we've ever had before, more things to help us. I think it's up to us. My message to you today is, I think it's up to us to become the experts in America in treating, and dealing, with moral injury.

No one has captured that. No organization has adopted that. No one has taken on that clinical niche and said, "Let's dive deep into this." This is at the core of most of who we serve. Certainly, the most severe suffering that we see. This is at the absolute core. Who better qualified to do this?

It's a fit with our faith. It's a fit with our history. It's a fit with our family. It's a fit with our future. I think our goal and what we should take from this Founder's Day is lets be the best in America at dealing with moral injury. Let's tackle this. Let's go deep into this. I don't have the answer. I'm asking you, let's go seek the answer together. Let's do the research. Let's seek the funding. Let's go where no other organization has gone and let's become the very best in our country at dealing with moral injury and that damage, damage, deep to the soul.

Let's ask God to help us.