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War wounds

Injuries run deep for war veterans and often include damage to the soul, says expert.

Greg Horton October 30th, 2013

Helping veterans recover from moral injury after war will be the topic of an upcoming lecture series by Rita Nakashima Brock. The lecture series is sponsored by the Oklahoma Institute of Biblical Literacy, a nonsectarian group.

The series is based on her book, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, co-authored with Gabriella Lettini, dean at Graduate Theological Union.

The concept of moral injury is a fairly new one, and Brock has pioneered methods to help churches and other communities support veterans through the transition from war to civilian life, including care for moral injury.

“A moral injury is a consequence of experiencing extreme conditions that challenge our moral values,” Brock said. “In extreme cases, the injury can be severe enough that entire belief systems are challenged.”

Brock said a moral injury can be concurrent with post-traumatic stress disorder but is distinct from it. PTSD is an injury to emotional and psychological well-being, whereas moral injury affects the conscience and, like PTSD, can affect decision-making, relationships and quality of life.

“It’s difficult for civilians to grasp that it takes eight weeks or more of complete immersion in a new moral system to make a solider,” Brock said. “Killing and destruction are celebrated, and soldiers are commended for doing their duty when they engage in those activities. As long as they are in the moral system, they can feel good.”

As part of the lecture series, Brock will address what churches and faith-based communities can do to help support the recovery process. Most importantly, she said, communities must become places of deep listening, allowing veterans to speak very unpleasant truths without judgment or pat answers and without attempting to “fix” the problems.

“Storytelling is part of the recovery process,” Brock said. “It takes training to learn to listen deeply because our culture doesn’t typically listen that way.”

Her lectures are based around her book.

“The book came about because Gabriella and I were asked to contribute work to the Truth Commission on Conscience in War that was held in New York City in 2010,” Brock said.

The Truth Commission on Conscience in War works with veterans to help them come to grips with the spiritual and moral consequences of war. Brock also is a research professor at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.

She said that problems begin when soldiers return to the moral system of their upbringing after combat. A disconnect and struggle happens in many veterans as they return to civilian life.

“There are extreme cases of extreme circumstances, such as massacres and civilian casualties, but we’re finding that survivor guilt and dealing with human remains cause serious problems for veterans.”

The concept of survivor guilt is well-known, but Brock said the issues related to handling human remains are less publicized.

“Humans are taught to respect dead bodies, but in war, there is not often time to apply appropriate amounts of reverence or respect,” Brock said. “Many times, the soldiers simply have to throw pieces into a body bag or dig mass graves. The consequences are very traumatic.”

Brock will give two presentations, both concluding with discussion. There also will be a panel discussion featuring a Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain, a combat veteran and a licensed counselor.

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