When Soldiers Come Home, Who Tends to Their Moral Injuries?
In the summer of 2008, my younger brother Jason was killed in Afghanistan. He was 25 years old. It has been almost eight years since he died, and while the experience of losing a family member to war deserves many pages, I wanted to write this for all the civilians struggling to understand their role in supporting veterans as they come home.
I wanted to write this for all the civilians struggling to understand their role in supporting veterans as they come home.
I’ve now spent enough time away from the trauma of that summer to reflect on what could have been. When Jason came back from his first deployment to Iraq in the summer of 2005, he was a mess. I was coming home from the Peace Corps, and he was coming home from combat. He was quiet and brooding in a way he had never been before.
Part of me wanted to continue our debate on the value of war versus the value of peacebuilding and nonviolence. It was a debate we’d started before our deployments and one that I expected we would pick up upon our return. Instead, I found that what he really needed was someone to listen.
He was changed by his war experience, but he was also sort of hooked on it. Things in America he hadn’t even noticed before now seemed so weird. “Everyone just takes everything for granted. Everyone just walks around with no idea what they have. I don’t fit in here,” he would say.
While we had never agreed on our politics, we were suddenly very similar. After two years of serving in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, I found that we both shared a new outlook: the world is a big place, and we’d just seen tiny parts of it that put America into perspective in a frighteningly real way. What separated us, however, was that when I came home I thrived. Jason did not. I had my bachelor’s degree in English, and I could put “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer” on my resume—that opened doors.
Jason had no resume. He didn’t know what to do with the freedom he had after coming home, and the powerful sense of purpose and brotherly camaraderie he’d found in the military was now missing. He was lonely and adrift.
Jason deployed a second time, this time to Afghanistan. In 2007, he returned home again. Each reintegration period was like the end of scuba dive. He was coming up and out too quickly and getting dizzy. On his third deployment, he wrote our family a “just in case I die” letter that we got months later—after his death.
“Coming back over here again seemed more appealing than being in America surrounded by Americans that are more concerned about their next new car, new house, celebrity, etc. I feel I’m doing more good over here than I was as an electrician.”
Recently I’ve been working on a digital series, Veterans Coming Home, that works to bridge the military–civilian divide and ease the transition home for veterans. We’re challenging the mainstream media tendency to reinforce veterans as either broken or as heroes, stereotypes that only widen the gap.
We have to realize it’s not unpatriotic to have feelings and express them.
A relatively new term is being used to explain veterans’ negative reactions when returning home from war: moral injury. According to moral injury expert Dr. Rita Brock, director of the Soul Repair Center at Texas Christian University, “Moral injury is a normal response to a traumatic situation where you feel you’ve become a part of the evil or the thing that was bad. Being part of it meant you didn’t do anything to stop it; you bought into a different value system.” What’s most interesting, though, is that you don’t have to go to war to experience moral injury around the war. Civilians can have it too.
The term “moral injury” seems to help. It brings a vague, isolating suffering into focus, making it more conscious. Brock notes, “[Awareness] can dispel a whole lot of despair because the naming allows it to be spoken about, and an unburdening starts. In connecting with others who can listen deeply, self-blame can be processed, trust restored, and a moral identity reconstructed.”
I do think that many of us may be experiencing moral injury, just like our veterans. If you struggled at any point with our country going to war, you are probably struggling with it still. Civilians may have a hard time looking at veterans’ struggles because they force us to look at our own. And when it’s unpatriotic to be angry about the war, when we’re not allowed to express our feelings about the situation for fear of not supporting our troops, we feel trapped. If we’re going to be able to come together on this, we have to realize it’s not unpatriotic to have feelings and express them. How we express them is an entirely different thing.
When people find out my brother was killed in Afghanistan, they usually go silent. They don’t know what to say. What I’d like, and what I imagine most veterans would like when they speak with civilians about their experience, is an invitation to be heard.
We’re all coming home from this war, even those of us who didn’t want it in the first place. This is our collective healing as a nation. Some of us are just carrying bigger pieces of it than others.