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Moral injury is a wound to the soul. It happens when you participate in or witness things that transgress your deepest beliefs about right and wrong. It is extreme trauma that manifests as grief, sorrow, shame, guilt, or any combination of those things. It shows up as negative thoughts, self-hatred, hatred of others, feelings of regret, obsessive behaviors, destructive tendencies, suicidal ideation, and all-consuming isolation.
You may experience moral injury if you’ve survived abuse, witnessed violence, participated in the chaos of combat, or experienced any form of trauma that’s changed your understanding of what you, or other human beings, are morally capable of. For many combat veterans, moral injury is inflicted during war, when they are split into two different versions of themselves: the person they were before war, whose morality was ingrained in them by their parents, religion, culture, and society, and the person they became during war, whose morality was replaced with a sense of right and wrong that helped them survive in a war zone.
When the smoke clears and the chaos of war ends, these two selves, with two different sets of moral values, confront each other and continue to battle. The prewar self points to the postwar self and says, “Hey! I know what you did. I know what you saw. You were wrong, you are bad, and you can never be good again.”
Experiencing Moral Injury
A soldier may experience moral injury when reflecting on his or her actions during combat. But they can also experience moral injury by bearing witness to the actions of others. The cool indifference of a commanding officer as he stands over a dying civilian; the capture and torture of men who are known to be innocent; the bomb that was planted purposefully to destroy human life: all can call into question our deeply held cultural belief that all people, deep down, are innately good.
Bearing witness to the moral indifference of others, or the premeditation of violence, is enough to warp your understanding of morality and make you question the moral character of everyone you meet. This makes it hard for veterans to trust other people and to assume the best in others, and in themselves.
In The Face of Confusion, Powerlessness, and Betrayal
In addition to participating in and witnessing violence, there’s a third, lesser-known cause of moral injury that impacts soldiers returning from war. It’s the sense of confusion, powerlessness, and betrayal that soldiers feel when they come home and try to transition back to civilian life.
Some people call them heroes, but most veterans don’t feel like heroes, so there’s a disconnect between the actual experience of war and the perceived experience of it. That disconnect makes veterans feel isolated and misunderstood.
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Others question veterans’ moral character for participating in wars started on false pretenses, or in any war at all. A small but vocal minority calls veterans leeches or lazy. They say veterans are taking advantage of the government, and subsequently taxpayers, when they partake in the benefits promised to them for their service. When faced with these accusations, misunderstandings, and questions, veterans start to question themselves.
Soul Level Injury
Moral injury is emotional, psychological, and spiritual. This makes it different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is more of a physiological reaction — the brain and body’s responses to extreme, prolonged stress or fear. Some of the symptoms of PTSD — nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, disassociation — can be stabilized with medication. But moral injury doesn’t seem to respond to medication, at least not permanently. Not at the soul level.
Time in and of itself is also not enough to heal the suffering of moral injury. Time can soften the sting of moral injury, but it can also harden memories, making emotional scar tissue even tougher to heal. That’s what happens if you leave a wound to fester without tending to it. And that’s why so many Vietnam veterans take psychiatric medications for decades and then, when they retire or divorce, or are otherwise forced to face themselves and their past, still find a world of pain waiting for them. The medication has only treated their symptoms, not the root cause of those symptoms. The wound can grow so big, so consuming, it feels like the only way to escape it is death.
The VA estimates that in the United States, twenty veterans take their lives every day.* While the majority of those who die by suicide are over the age of fifty, the number of younger vets who contribute to that twenty-a-day statistic is steadily increasing. If the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fail to acknowledge and heal moral injury, the millennial generation of veterans will continue to face the same fate as those who’ve gone before.
Healing is possible even when traditional methods like talk therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and medication have failed. A healing method is accessible to anyone who’s willing to sit still for a few moments and just breathe. As soon as an individual is willing to take responsibility for his or her own healing, grace rushes in to relieve the pain, unravel traumatic memories, and release the past for good. Meditation, breath work, and the body’s natural intelligence can help heal deep trauma in ways the mind can’t. You can’t think yourself into feeling better. You can’t will yourself to heal. But in taking on a discipline like meditation, you create the space where healing can happen, naturally. The act and discipline of meditation can redeem a life — no matter how deep the wound.
The responsibility to acknowledge, accept, and heal from moral injury doesn’t just belong to those suffering from moral injury. When we send our youth into battle on our behalf, we are complicit in their actions. We are responsible for bearing our portion of the pain those actions cause. And in taking responsibility, we are empowered to help these women and men rebuild their moral scaffolding, reclaim their place in the society they volunteered to protect, and remember what it means to be human — and to belong.
Relief From Pain
I thought I was writing this book because I wanted to give you a glimmer of hope. My goal, when I started out, was to help you find some relief from pain. But you deserve more than that. You can have so much more than that. You are so much more than that.
You may feel 100 percent certain that you’ll never feel any better than you do right now. You may want to crawl right out of your skin because the past is crushing you and it hurts so damn much to be you every day.
I know how much it hurts. I know how fucking unbearable it can seem.
But pain is not the ultimate truth. Pain is an illusion of this world. It’s not who you really are in the grand scheme of things. In our world, God manifests as good and evil, the truth and the lie, the light and the darkness. But your true nature is much bigger than what happens here.
You don’t have to believe that God is in everything and that everything happens for a reason. You don’t have to see moral injury as a gift, a powerful teaching tool that’s meant to forcibly, painfully, remind you who you really are. You don’t have to believe that the shitty things that happen to us are our best learning opportunities meant to shake us and wake us up and change us for the better. You don’t have to understand that moral injury highlights who you aren’t — that the pain and grief and guilt and shame hurt so much because those things are so contrary to your true nature. You don’t have to understand that it hurts to experience moral injury because moral injury is so not you.
But , even when you feel consumed by moral injury and alone in the world, you are not separate from the beauty and good that exist here. You are still a part of that. You are connected to that, whether you feel it right now or not. You can experience that beauty and goodness again, if you want to.
If you cry out for help and relief, help and relief will come. They may come as a man painted in black and white, with feathers and a dead wolf on his head. They may come as a quiet, kind, mustached man or a herd of deer at the window. Help and relief might come as a kindly teacher, but they may come as a small, brown-eyed boy begging you for a piece of candy, or a girl who dies in the arms of your friend. They may even come as a man in black diving behind a parked car as he tries to end your life.
Healing begins when you stop resisting the teachers in your life, no matter their form, and start getting curious. Get curious about your pain. Start asking questions about it — about where it comes from, what’s causing it, and what might make you feel better. Then get curious about the ways in which you’re trying to heal.
You might ask questions like, “Why am I always in such a shitty mood after I drink?” or “Why do I still feel depressed even though I’m on medication?” If you ask questions and seek truth with an honest heart, the answers will appear.
In the meantime, a good place to start is right where you are. So sit down, get still, and take a deep breath. Then maybe take another. If it’s hard to sit still, ask why. If you feel lots of resistance, get curious about that. Be gentle with yourself. Setbacks are okay. Setbacks will happen. If you’re still breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong. If you’re still breathing, there is hope.
Excerpted from the book Where War Ends.
© 2019 by Tom Voss and Rebecca Anne Nguyen.
Reprinted with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com
Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran’s 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal ― Recovering from PTSD and Moral Injury through Meditation
by Tom Voss and Rebecca Anne Nguyen
An Iraq War veteran’s riveting journey from suicidal despair to hope. Tom Voss’s story will give inspiration to veterans, their friends and family, and survivors of all kinds. (Also available as a Kindle edition and as an audiobook.)
For more info and/or to order this book, click here.
About the Author
Tom Voss served as an infantry scout in the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment’s scout-sniper platoon. While deployed in Mosul, Iraq, he participated in hundreds of combat and humanitarian missions. Rebecca Anne Nguyen, Voss’s sister and coauthor, is a writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina. TheMeditatingVet.com