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Rev. Dr. Rita Brock Discusses Moral Injury & Soul Repair

Rev. Dr. Rita Brock discusses moral injury and soul repair at the 2015 Volunteers of America national conference. Dr. Brock is now Volunteers of America's Senior Vice President, Moral Injury Programs.

Moral injury is a relatively recent term used to describe a crisis that soldiers have faced for centuries, the internal suffering that results from doing something against your moral code. In essence it is a wound to the conscience. Here we answer six common questions about moral injury.

Video Transcript


Well I have to say I love family reunions. So, even though I'm new to the Volunteers of America family, it's really great to be in your midst. In fact, I love you so much I go to two every year. Not this one, but two other ones.

In relation to this issue of family, I want to say that the work I've been doing on moral injury the last five years is partly because of my own family history. I grew up with a veteran of World War II and Vietnam, and moral injury had a serious impact on my own family, so this is not just a kind of academic or benevolent work I do, but it has a real personal place in my own soul.

So, I'm going to tell you a story about a family first. In the World War II mini-series, The Pacific, that you can now watch on iTunes or Amazon Prime, doctor in Alabama, named Edward Sledge, and that series is based on true stories, Edward Sledge is doing everything he can as a medical doctor to keep his own son out of World War II. So he sends him to officer candidate school, military academy, thinking that by the time he's an officer the war would be over, but Eugene doesn't want to be left out of the war, he's afraid he'll miss the fighting. So when he becomes eighteen he just tells his father "I'm joining the Marines and you can't stop me!" So Dr. Sledge replies "Eugene, the worst thing about treating those combat boys in the great war wasn't that they'd had their flesh torn, it was that they'd had their souls torn out. I don't want to look in your eyes someday and see no spark, no love, no life, that would break my heart."

The torn soul that Dr. Sledge describes, is I think what we call moral injury. It is soul anguish, a broken spirit, a shredded soul. So after terrible, terrible experiences in the war in the Pacific Eugene comes home, and his father sits outside his bedroom door keeping vigil in the middle of the night as he listens through that closed door to his sons nightmares. And then Eugene, who tries to come back into society, tries to go to college, is interviewed as he's making application and this young well-intended cheerful woman says, "Well, what did you learn in the war that will be useful to you in college?" And he said, "Well, I can take a machine gun apart and reload it in thirty seconds." And he said, "I was in the infantry." And she said, "Well what else can you do?" And he goes through the kind of things he learned to do, and, of course, nothing he learned to do fighting in the Pacific is going to be useful to him in college. And so she finally said, "Well, is there anything you can do that's helpful to you?" And he just looked straight at her and he said, "I'm really good at killing Japs, that's what I do!" And he walks away.

There's a little bit of how he's able finally to come back, because his father tells everybody around him to just leave him alone. That he can't do anything, he just can sit outside and look at the sky, because of what he's been through, and that they just need to give him time. And he does eventually become a professor of biology and is able to write his story of that war. I think because he had a father who kind of knew what he was going through.

Anyone who works in high stakes situations with marginalized populations at risk has probably seen that empty stare. People in poverty. People struggling with addiction. People whose daily lives and their choices erode their feeling of being a good and decent person, worthy of respect. People who carry unprocessed grief and guilt in ordinary life. Because of things we do, witness, are ordered to do, or fail to do in high stakes situations. We can lose our moral foundations and our sense of being a good person. Most religious traditions understand this inner anguish. This sense that we have failed our core moral self. Sometimes because we have no other choice. In war, it's often your job to do those things that violate everything you were ever taught is wrong. Moral injury afflicts ordinary moral people, when no good choice is possible in situations where people must use the power they have to act, knowing they will cause harm, or violate their own core moral values. In those situations we actually don't lose our moral conscience, but in judging ourselves, we become both betrayer and betrayed. A soul divided against itself.

Moral injury. A broken spirit. In that situation, is not a disorder or a psychiatric condition, though it profoundly effects our mental health. Moral injury is the feeling that one is no longer possible to be good anymore. It is the loss of the capacity for trust and empathy, of a sense of meaning, and even of faith in God. I have a friend whose father fought in World War II, and he says, "My grandmother sent four good Christian boys into that war, and three atheists came home."

How do moral human beings speak about the unspeakable? The work our center, the Soul Repair Center, we've been doing the past three years on moral injury and veterans of war has helped us see how it is part of our larger society, which is actually a great gift of veterans to all of us. The pulling back of curtains of silent, ignorance, and denial about how many of us also carry forms of moral injury. Veterans can be so changed that they can not relate to who they were before.

Now I think most of us have some experience of that if we've ever been to college, and you remember who that young seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year old was that entered college, and who that person walked across the stage at graduation was. It's a vast change that happens to so many people. For veterans it happens in a very short compressed period of time under terrible circumstances often. In war, committing violence is a given, and it is no longer a crime, it is sought after often as a quality of character. But such a profound internal change cannot simply be set aside like an old uniform after war is over. And for many veterans the shift back to civilian society and values is impossible because their moral conscience traps them in solitary grief and agony. They can feel so hollowed out, numb and despairing, that they cannot find their way back to ordinary relationships. The world looks gray and dead to them. They can be angry with God. Believe that God hates them, or conclude that God no longer exists. Through their willingness to speak of the horrors of combat, the moral anguish of war, and the searing losses of some of their deepest, deepest friends, they show us how, without adequate time, without the love of friends, without social support, many self destruct slowly through addictions, failed relationships, and homelessness. Others die by their own hands.

If we are paying attention, the ways they have been changed should haunt us. Every war is laced with moral injury, since the beginning of war. But our societies response is wholly inadequate to what we ask of those we send on our behalf. We thank the troops for their service, and project onto veterans what we want them to beā€”romantic heroes to admire. Wounded warriors, and head cases in need of help, or victims to rescue from wars evils. They return to a society that sets them apart. When isolation and alienation are the worst parts of trying to come home. With perfunctory comments formulated, simplistic pieties, and cookie cutter greetings, we isolate them as a stereotype class and dehumanize them. Instead of listening patiently with an open heart and with respect to all they have endured, and cannot forget. We impose our own assumptions about what we think they need, so we can feel better about ourselves, and move on with what we are already busy doing.

I was guilty of that for my father. War is the worst thing human beings have created to destroy the human spirit, and it can be devastating to hear what it does to people. Those who survive and come home, are not a problem we have to fix. They are part of us. Opening our hearts and listing to them is profoundly transformative and heartening. We become sharers of a spirit that seeks the restoration of empathy, of trust, and of a new meaning system that is adequate to the honest facing of the worst things human beings experience.

No human being can find their way to a new moral identity alone. We become moral people through the love and guidance of our families, and communities from the moment we are born. We need people who care enough to listen deeply to things we may lack, words to describe. We need people who can hear us into speech, and join us in reconstructing a moral system adequate to our experiences of moral failure, and the deconstruction of our moral universe. Moral injury is, I believe, the clearest testimony to the fact that every human being is spirit in vulnerable flesh, and in that flesh like Jesus, we incarnate the indestructible spirit of God. Moral conscience, the awareness that we have failed our core system of meaning and suffer from it, is profound testimony to the power of that spirit when it cannot be reconciled, with what threatens it. Some choose death, because they cannot find away to reintegrate spirit with flesh. To share the burden of moral injury, to be told another story of pain and struggle, is a great gift of a person's trust and spirit to us. A gift to be respected and honored with our own honest venerability, and open spirit. If we face our own relationship to moral injury with humility and honesty, we will be better people and better able to understand what peace truly requires of us. Thank you.