At Volunteers of America, we have wide-ranging experience with people who are suffering. We have helped the most vulnerable among us at the points when they needed it most. We have stood with people in crisis, listened to them, and tried our best to alleviate their pain and isolation. But we have begun to wonder, what happens when the moment of crisis passes? What happens to those of us who have started to recover physically or financially but continue to carry the emotional and spiritual burdens of the events that led to the lowest points? Sometimes those burdens make day-to-day life as painful, as filled with suffering, as the crisis itself.
Volunteers of America is dedicated to helping those in need to rebuild lives and reach their full potential. Since our founding in 1896, we have supported veterans, at-risk youth, the elderly, people leaving prison, homeless individuals and families, those with disabilities, and those recovering from addictions, now reaching more than 1.4 million per year through 32 affiliates in 46 states with more than 16,000 professional employees. Our mission has endured throughout our tenure, adapting as times change, yet fully committed to our ministry of faith-based, practical assistance as we meet people where they are and help them get to where they want to be.
Since the post-Civil War era, veterans and their families have been an organizational priority. Today our programs reach more than 40,000 veterans and families annually. Our broad scope of services includes: peer support; case management; care coordination; service centers; emergency, transitional, and permanent housing; health and mental health care; education, training, and employment services; legal and benefits assistance; and specific services for female veterans, veterans with families, and elderly veterans.
Innovation is a hallmark of our service to veterans: Volunteers of America was among the first providers to make low-barrier, low-demand transitional housing and housing-first options available to homeless veterans and to use service-enriched housing to help women veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma. We also connect those living in rural areas to counseling and supportive services through telehealth to mitigate geographical challenges.
In our ongoing efforts to reach the veteran population, in 2009, we sought and received a grant from the US Department of Labor’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program to provide education and job training. In 2010, we organized 35 nationwide programs to serve over 7,700 homeless veterans, offering transitional housing, employment training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling.
As we pursued our work with veterans, we encountered many people struggling with PTSD, a natural response to the traumatic experiences they endured that nevertheless affected their ability to navigate their daily lives without fear and restrictive accommodations to manage their anxiety. As we dove deeper into the continuing issues of the veteran population, we also encountered moral injury. At the time, we did not know what to call it. We only knew our veterans were suffering from symptoms that sometimes accompany PTSD but may also exist on their own—a kind of soul wound characterized by a loss of faith, depression, anxiety, shame, guilt, self-sabotaging, and self-destructive behaviors. From the outside, we might only see anger or apathy, but inside, our veterans are still at war with themselves.
We knew that to help, we needed more information, so we identified the Soul Repair Center as a thought leader on moral injury. Founded in 2012 and located at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, the Soul Repair Center is dedicated to research and public education about recovery from moral injury. In September 2015, Volunteers of America partnered with the Center and the Tarrant County Spiritual Care Network to provide training on addressing trauma and moral injury for our affiliates in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma. Over two training days, we explored various definitions of and responses to moral injury. Experts in the fields of substance abuse, psychiatry, psychology, law, and theology discussed diverse topics such as the potential impact of court-ordered treatment on moral injury; secondary trauma and spiritual resilience in caregivers; shame; and the neuroscience of trauma.
Our initial training around moral injury convinced us that we needed to do even more with moral injury—not just for our veterans but for many of our clients.
As we delved into its definition, its hallmarks, and its manifestations, we realized moral injury underpins so much suffering in the world, particularly so for the people Volunteers of America serves who need our help most. We realized that to bring an understanding of moral injury to the general population, we needed to talk to people who, as we do, see it every day without knowing what to call it.
With this realization in mind, we devised a series of convenings to talk about moral injury: what it is, how it manifests in our populations, and what we can do to address it. We gathered representatives from Volunteers of America affiliates and leaders of organizations from myriad fields, including diverse nonprofits serving veterans, people with dementia and their families, children and families, and from the business sector, including leaders in banking and finance, as well as a documentary film team. We met with 25 to 30 participants per meeting in Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago in lively interactions in which we pooled our knowledge and explored the challenges of understanding moral injury and what we can do to help its sufferers.
For four hours in each venue, we considered the term itself, stretched its current definitions to reflect the dimensional realities of moral injury, and challenged one another to break through to a new viewpoint that is just beginning to recognize that the suffering created by moral injury underpins so many emotional, physical, and spiritual issues. We now believe addressing the ramifications of moral injury in the context of myriad issues—from homelessness to suicide to caregivers’ and survivors’ guilt, as well as through the lenses of specific populations such as veterans, people who identify as LBGTQ, people who come from strict religious communities, and so on— can revolutionize our service approach.
We will continue helping people meet their basic needs. But now, we will attempt to bring a new component to our work that reaches beyond physical requirements to address the emotional, spiritual, and existential suffering that makes it so difficult for our clients to find their own housing, to get and keep a job, to make emotional connections with family and community members, and to eschew the momentary freedom from pain that substances provide. Many of the behaviors that lead to these circumstances are symptoms of an internal wound. We believe that if we can help people recover from this wound or at least change their relationship with it, we can help them regain their hope and purpose—we can help them recover themselves.
Out of these convenings and our growing understanding of moral injury’s pervasiveness will come a Moral Injury Healing and Outreach Center where we will continue to explore the effects of moral injury and the ways in which we can reach sufferers, discover new pathways toward healing, and educate the public. The Center, working through Volunteers of America’s extensive and robust infrastructure and in collaboration with partners from various sectors, will perform many functions. It will serve as a repository for information about moral injury and conduct original moral injury-related research; it will be a leader in the development and dissemination of innovative approaches for addressing moral injury in veterans and civilians; and it will function as a hub for the provision of training to community leaders, family members/caregivers, and direct care staff about moral injury and its effects.
Our expectation is to become a beacon for families, educators, practitioners, and faith communities as they wrestle with how moral injury affects them and their environment. Our hope is that by naming moral injury and exposing the darkness it brings to its sufferers, we can continue a national conversation that leads to healing for individuals, for nations, and for the world. We have a lot of work ahead of us. With these convenings, we have taken the first steps of a long and rewarding journey.