Healing Moral Injury – Four Steps That Help

July 20, 2016

War demands that people do things that are far outside of civilian life.  The ethics, rules and moral code of everyday life are suspended so that the goals of completing a mission and bringing battle buddies home safely can be accomplished.  A returning warrior’s inner sense of being a good person can be shattered by combat and overwhelming guilt and shame can keep them isolated.  As mental health providers, need to help our returning service members rebuild their souls.

We know that 90% of people in the United States profess belief in God or transcendent being.  We also know that 40% of people would seek help from a spiritual leader before speaking to a therapist.  This means that ministers, rabbis, imams and other spiritual leaders are more likely to hear the stories of  veterans’ moral despair before a counselor or therapist does.

Recently, Nancy Isserman, Director of Council for Relationships’s Operation Home and Healing asked our military consultant, Dr. Will Barnes and I train to clergy as  first responders to wounds of moral injury. In three separate workshops in South Jersey and Delaware, we presented what clergy can do to help veterans reconstruct their moral identities and once again begin to find meaning in life:

  1. Provide a Safe Haven by presenting a calm, nonjudgmental presence.
  1. Listen Deeply.   Listen, at first, without comment or questions.  Listen with respect and convey warmth and acceptance.  The first step in healing shame is seeing acceptance in the eyes of someone who is willing to hear the worst horrors of your story.
  1. Provide Grounding by helping the veteran create a map for rejoining the faith community and the community at large.  Create opportunities for study, sharing and building relationships.  Help seek out resources from organizations and the Veterans Administration.
  1. Provide Acceptance and lead the way to self acceptance by acknowledging the darker side of human nature, not trying to fix what can’t be fixed, and helping increase coping skills for the triggers of shame.

There are several books our team recommend as resources:

  • War and the Soul by Edward Tick, 2005 Quest Books
  • Soul Repair by Rita Nakashma Brock and Gabriella Lettini, 2013, Beacon Press
  • Adaptive Disclosure by Brett Litz and Leslie Libowitz, 2015, Guilford Press
  • Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay, 1995, Simon and Shuster

Click here for more information on services for Veterans at Council for Relationships.