“A moral injury is an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression on the part of themselves or others. It produces profound feelings of guilt or shame, moral disorientation, and societal alienation. In some cases, it may cause a sense of betrayal and anger toward colleagues, commanders, the organization, politics, or society at large.” from Wikipedia
We were sitting around in Hans’ apartment. Four little kids were running amok, and the adults were vainly trying to manage the children’s chaos while simultaneously engaging in some kind of intelligent conversation. Somehow, the discussion turned to gun control. This is a hot topic, especially with Hans, seeing as he lives in Texas and is also a combat vet. Hans is a self-described gun enthusiast, who has a loaded gun in almost every room of his home. He takes firearms with the utmost seriousness.
The grownups in the room came to the conclusion that effective gun control is impossible in this country. There are just too many weapons, and there is no way of tracking them all. I made the comment that gun control in the United States can’t happen because of cultural issues. I said,
“The problem is that in this country we believe that killing people solves problems.”
Hans immediately took exception to that comment. He looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t believe that. Killing doesn’t solve problems.”
I was taken aback by that. Hans is a proud combat veteran, and I have always been under the impression that he approved of the use of deadly force.
Hans went on with pain in his voice, “Dad, I killed people in Iraq. You know what it’s done to me.”
I thought for a moment and replied, “Honestly, I don’t know what it did to you. I can’t know. I never killed anybody.”
Hans shrugged and said, “You know what I mean.”
Maybe I do know, at least a little bit. I know that the war changed Hans. There is a Hans who is pre-war, and a Hans who is post-war. The latter version is worse for wear. The damage in him is obvious to me, as it is to some other people.
Hans told me, “Dad, we all carried our weapons, but nobody wanted to pull the trigger. It was all for show. Nobody wanted to kill a guy.”
And yet, Hans did kill a guy. He killed multiple people. He shot some men, and he got shot too. He stabbed a man to death. He did the things that he never wanted to do.
This brings me to the subject of moral injuries.
Moral injuries sometimes sound like some fuzzy “woke” idea. Physical wounds are obvious. Psychological damage is accepted as being real. But “moral” injuries, what the hell is that?
I believe that moral injuries are real, and that they are sometimes lethal. Can a person see the effects of a moral injury? Maybe not. There are no physical scars. How can an individual see the wounds to another person’s soul? I think that can happen only if the individual knows the person well and observes him or her with a keen eye.
Years ago, I was in Chicago to see an interactive presentation about the war in Iraq. Aaron Hughes and Amber Ginsburg created and hosted “The Tea Project,” as the show was called. Aaron was a veteran who served in the Army. It is hard for me to adequately describe The Tea Project. It was partly Hughes’ personal history, and it was partly an ongoing conversation about peace between Hughes, Ginsburg, and the audience. It all revolved around the Middle Eastern tradition of sharing tea, which everyone at the presentation eventually did.
The Tea Project isn’t the thing that I remember most about that evening in Chicago. Prior to the show, I had a conversation with a young man who was also a vet. This guy had been in the Military Police and had been stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison. He was there after the torture scandal, so he had not been personally involved the war crimes committed there. However, he had witnessed or participated in other activities that left him scarred. I never knew what all his specific experiences were. I recall him mentioning that he had watched Apache helicopters fire up some Iraqis that were trying to assault the prison. I think that event tore him up, but all I knew for sure was that he had been damaged.
This young man introduced me to the concept of moral injury. He told me explicitly that he had sustained a moral injury. How did he deal with this wound? He smoked weed. In fact, he had moved to Colorado because, at that time, he had legal access to marijuana in that state.
It seems to me that other veterans who have sustained a moral injury deal with the it in a similar way. Some of them drink, some smoke, some throw themselves into work. They try not to feel. They do whatever they have to do in order to avoid touching the wound that won’t heal. These behaviors are not healthy, and for some vets they amount to a passive sort of suicide.
I don’t know how veterans with moral injuries can deal with their pain. I suspect that the answer is unique for each vet. I doubt that there is solution that will work for all of them.
Hans has a moral injury. He will have to find his own path to healing.
Frank (Francis) Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He completed the Military Intelligence Basic Course at Fort Huachuca and then went to Flight School at Fort Rucker. Frank was stationed with the 3rd Armor Division in West Germany at Fliegerhorst Airfield from December 1981 to January 1985. He flew Hueys and Black Hawks and was next assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, CA. He got the hell out of the Army in August 1986.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.