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Soul Repair, Moral Injury and a “Third Conversation”

Military leaders, pastors and health care professionals looking at dramatic increases in suicide rates among returning veterans of war have noted two critical things about recent wars involving the United States.

Military leaders, pastors and health care professionals looking at dramatic increases in suicide rates among returning veterans of war have noted two critical things about recent wars involving the United States.

First, a dramatically higher percentage of soldiers in recent wars actually see and perpetrate the actual acts of war. Second, war is no longer between combatants only. 

I heard examples of both when I attended the November 2012 launch of the Soul Repair Center (SRC) at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. There veterans gave first-hand accounts of the horrible acts they had personally experienced: killing a young girl who appeared to be carrying a grenade, but was not; blowing up a car that appeared to be filled with explosives, only to discover it was filled with a young family. 

Veterans often return with deep shame and profound questions arising from the moral ambiguities of modern war. Such veterans often feel isolated from anyone who can truly understand their despair. Unattended moral injury leads to further depression, guilt,  helplessness and, often, suicide. 

The Soul Repair Center was established to address these issues and needs. 

Directed by Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph.D., and Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr., U.S. Army Col. (retired), this center is dedicated to helping veterans of war deal with moral injury

Distinct from physical injuries or even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), moral injury is damage to the soul. It occurs when war combatants violate deeply held moral beliefs in the conduct of war. Not limited to people of faith, moral injury results from heinous acts of war that “unmake the character” of soldiers. 

At the launch of the SRC, a panel of veterans told their stories and a panel of military leaders, pastors and health care professionals responded to the veterans. The primary impact for attendees was a new or renewed understanding of the horror of war and the deep vulnerability of human beings who engage in war.

The line repeated most often was: “War changes people forever.”  The SRC’s mission is to restore veterans to wholeness despite the deep ways in which they have been forever changed.

A major part of SRC’s strategy to restore such wholeness involves the church.  SRC hopes to raise awareness in the church and equip pastors and other church members to engage veterans in ways that promote mutual understanding and healing.  SRC also is interested in how Christian worship can engage the particular needs of veterans with moral injury. 

Chaplain Keizer observed that the sacrament of Holy Communion and the use of the psalms have been two Christian resources that have been particularly healing for people struggling with moral injury.

As I reflect on the presentations and panel discussions at the SRC’s inaugural event, I am struck by two significant contributions the center can make. The primary contribution, of course, is actually helping veterans address their moral injury. By raising awareness and creating networks of care that will strengthen the capacity of the church and society to help veterans repair their souls, the SRC will give hope and healing to veterans across the land.

A second contribution is the potential SRC has to foster a new American conversation, a new way of talking, when it comes to the American military establishment.  In our polarized political environment, people in the U.S. have tended to be almost exclusively critical or exclusively supportive of the U.S.’s military establishment.  

To people highly critical of U.S. military policies and practices, "American imperialism" is almost a redundancy.  In this construction of American history, America always has been and continues to be only self-interested when it comes to its international engagements, including but not limited to military engagements.  America has little regard for, and for that matter little awareness of, the negative impact of its policies and engagements on people around the world.  In this conversation America is the perpetrator, the villain, and the positive role of America in the world is muted.   

To people highly supportive of the U.S.’s military policies and practices, America is seen as "right" simply because it's America.  American exceptionalism is the belief that America truly has a God-given, exceptional place in the history of nations because of its vision of freedom and democracy and its benevolence throughout the world.  Here patriotism and love of country come naturally.  In this conversation America's most heroic chapters are highlighted and America's shameful chapters are ignored.  There is little room for serious criticism of America in this conversation.

The Soul Repair Center has the potential to legitimize a third conversation: one which honors the best in American engagement in the world and is self-critical.  One does not attend many conferences where  “God Bless America" is sung with deep passion, and America is confronted with the horrible things it did to the people and communities of Iraq, not to mention its own soldiers.  

Rev. Herm Keizer himself personifies this new conversation. He is a dedicated career soldier and chaplain who believes in just war and in America's leadership responsibilities in the world, but also a serious Christian whose first-hand experience with war for over 40 years leads him to believe the American military must be much more reflective on how it trains soldiers, what military engagements constitute just war, and what options it gives soldiers when they are required to violate their conscience in ways that are dehumanizing.  

The SRC inaugural conference was virtually free of extreme American self-loathing and of extreme American self-congratulations.  It was a "third conversation."  As the SRC mobilizes networks of support for veterans with moral injury, it has the potential to foster conversations in which thoughtful people can pray “God bless America" and "God forgive America" with equal fervor and without creating a brawl.