The Hidden Wound of Moral Injury After War

July 12, 2016

Iraqi war vet, Tyler Budreu wrote “They say war is hell but I say it’s the foyer to hell.  I say coming home is hell, and hell ain’t got no coordinates.”  (in Packing Inferno) What could lead Budreu to say this?  In the past few years,  the idea of “Moral Injury” has emerged to describe the inner torment of some soldiers who are returning home.

Moral Injury is the consequence of being faced with circumstances that shatter your deepest beliefs  and values about yourself and others.  In the movie “The Lone Survivor” a group of Navy SEALS are on a mission to find and kill a Taliban leader.   They come across three Afghani goat herders and face the dilemma of  either killing the unarmed men or releasing them,  not knowing if the herders,  two young boys and older man, will tell the Taliban about them.   The SEALS are not only dealing with a moral issue they are also contending with inadequate communication, scarce resources and commanders who seem oblivious.  I won’t give away the ending but as the title suggests, there is only one survivor who is left to struggle and live with the consequences of decisions that were made.  The book on which the movie was made was written by the lone survivor of that failed mission.

During a tour of duty warriors may see and experience these and other events that can shatter their sense of themselves when they come home:

  1. Feeling guilty because they couldn’t save the life of a battle buddy.
  1. Betraying personal values while completing a mission
  1. Feeling let down or betrayed by the decisions of political or military leaders
  1. Seeing or being involved with the death of civilians
  1. Survivor Guilt

These kinds of experiences can shatter a soldier’s moral compass and sense of herself as a good and worthy person.  They can lead to what we now call “Moral Injury.”  Moral Injury and PTSD have some overlapping symptoms but while PTSD is rooted in overwhelming danger and fear, Moral Injury is rooted in the shame of participating or seeing situations that violate your sense of right and wrong.   Having to live everyday knowing what you did or saw in combat can lead to guilt, demoralization, isolation and self sabotage.   There is often a feeling that if others knew what you did or saw in combat they would never be able to accept you.  And, in fact, you cannot accept yourself.

We know that shame is one of the most difficult emotions to face.  Returning service members don’t talk about these feelings because they are so painful and because they feel their actions during war have made them morally reprehensible.

Finding someone that can be trusted to hear their story without judgment is the beginning of healing of Moral Injury.  Healing is a long journey toward self compassion and self forgiveness but the first step is to find a trusted listener.

Of all the wounds of war, Moral Injury is the most hidden.  Acknowledging it’s existence and helping service members, families, clergy and mental health professionals aware of it can help alleviate the suffering of those living with it.


Tyler E. Boudreau, Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2008)