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Soul Repair for Afghan Vets

Deeper than Stress

On January 8, Cpl. Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez died in his Kingston home — the third suspected suicide involving members of the Canadian Armed Forces in one week. It’s the seventh apparent suicide in the past two months. Sanhueza-Martinez, 28, was an Afghan war vet with no history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Two days after his death, Tom Mulcair, leader of the NDP, urged Prime Minister Harper to “acknowledge the crisis” and make the mental health needs of those who serve in the military a priority.

All of the soldiers who committed suicide had served tours of duty in Afghanistan, which has raised the level of debate about how to support veterans as they transition from military to civilian life. The discussion remains focused on psychological issues and their apparent solutions: mainly, mental health services and improved job prospects, such as special employment programs.

But the spiritual dimension has been missing from the public discussion so far, and without it, successful reintegration cannot happen. Christians can contribute to the public discussion by raising awareness of “moral injury” as an impact of war, and by providing practical support through pastoral care that takes moral injury seriously. Active engagement in this issue is part of being agents for peace.

Deeper than ‘stress’

The current debate brings together a range of important issues: awareness of PTSD among veterans; the adequacy of mental health services for returnees from Afghanistan; the stigma for “heroes of war” to disclose emotional issues; the challenges of transition from military life in Afghanistan to civilian life in Canada; and public policies that remove soldiers who disclose mental health issues from active duty lists and jeopardize positions or benefits that may be essential income for their families. Each case reveals a complex story that involves family, local community, the changing military in a post-Afghanistan context and shifting public priorities in Canada. At a deeper level, successful reintegration also needs to consider and address moral injury as an important factor.

Moral injury is different than psychological stress, but they are often confused. Psychological analysis focuses on the person’s reaction to danger and the long-term emotional impact of living in extreme danger, threat and fear. Moral injury, on the other hand, describes the inner conflict that results from being involved in activities that violate one’s personal sense of morals, either by inflicting harm, not being able to prevent harm or witnessing events that violate one’s inner moral values.  It is a wound of the soul, involving shame, guilt and self-doubt.

Wounded souls

Moral injury is not something that the Department of National Defense is eager to discuss, but it is as significant as physical injury or psychological stress if we want to find effective ways to help returnees from conflicts like Afghanistan make the transition back to “normal” life in Canada.  Moral injury has received more attention in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. On average, more than 20 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States. Rev. Herman Keizer, former Director of Chaplaincy Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church, is at the forefront of developing models of care that address moral injury, as well as physical, social and psychological injuries, to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life. It seems appropriate that the center he co-directs is called the Soul Repair Center at the Brite Divinity School.

Modern warfare is likely to cause moral injury for several reasons. Increasingly, the lines between civilian and military are blurred, resulting in harm to innocent people that violates basic moral values. Opponents are de-humanized in war rhetoric but are very human in face-to-face encounters. Winning the hearts and minds of the people is part of military strategy, but then the same people get killed in combat. Soldiers may find themselves complicit in activities they abhor, such as harsh treatment of detainees, using torture to extract information or an inability to stop offensive acts by allies. The moral sensibilities of military volunteers are blunted in training to focus on the mission without asking questions, but the questions return when they get home.

At home in Canada, the moral ambiguities of the war in Afghanistan contribute to difficulty in reintegration. There is no clear victory to justify past actions, and the war is no longer popular. For returnees the war is still real and intense; they need time and caring space to come to terms with inner moral conflicts that they do not feel free to share with people who only want to call them heroes and get back to “normal.”

What can be done?

Churches can help in several ways. The first is naming moral injury for what it is, advocating for recognition of it in treatment programs and engaging in the difficult discussions about the moral ambiguities of modern wars for those sent to fight them. Calling returnees “heroes” can close doors to healing; creating safe spaces to work through their issues can be an extension of the chaplaincy role, which is more familiar to soldiers than psychological counselling. Liturgies of lament and rituals of forgiveness can be very meaningful to returnees, who are used to military rituals to help cope with the challenges of military life.

Moral injury also opens a much-needed wider debate about the impacts of modern wars for soldiers, families and our society — something that gets too little attention as leaders glorify military victories for political reasons.


  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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