Moral ambiguities of war take their toll on veterans

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A Pentagon study in August found that combat was not a major factor in military suicides. Risk factors included being male, and “everyday” stress, such as losing a significant relationship or having a mental illness.

Yet, in 2010, Veterans Affairs clinicians found that, even when post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse are factored out, veterans who have killed have suicide rates at least double the average veteran rate. The veteran rate has been climbing for a decade and is currently three times the general population.

The conflicting Pentagon and VA clinical findings make sense if we distinguish those currently in the active-duty military from veterans.

Combat service is a major risk factor in veteran suicides — it increases in force over time. The average age of veteran suicides is around 55, whereas it is 43 for the general population. The active-duty military has lower suicide rates for a number of reasons.

Basic training prepares soldiers for war and bonds them into a tight unit structure of battle buddies. Unit cohesion provides support for the stresses of combat, and the mission-driven ethos of war puts an urgent focus on staying alive.

Still, active-duty military suicide rates surpassed the general population for the first time in 2009.

A crucial factor in veterans’ suicides is moral injury. Moral injury is different from PTSD, which is an involuntary reaction to terror under life-threatening conditions that primarily affects the limbic brain system.

Once severe symptoms of PTSD calm down, the moral questions emerge and moral injury can set in. At the end of 2009, the VA began to consider moral injury as a factor in veteran suicide.

The moral ambiguities of war can eat at a soul, like acid, when the intense pressures of combat recede. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay explains moral injury as the unmaking of character.

It is not that a veteran forgets right and wrong, but he may decide he no longer can make the right decision or that making such a decision is meaningless.

How do moral human beings come home after combat? War sanctions breaking into houses, killing, blowing up villages and dehumanizing other people.

What is the impact of watching others die because you could not save them or failed in your duty to save them, or worse, killed them accidentally?

How do those immersed in such a world forget, just because they come home? They will never forget what happened.

The long legacy of war lives in veteran rates of suicide. Even those who have not deployed to a war zone — for example, today’s drone operators — report symptoms of moral injury.

Recovery is possible, but it is a responsibility of our whole society. Recovery requires long-term, committed friendships, with trusted civilians who can help veterans come all the way home.

Yet, as many veterans attest, their struggle to come home after war is aggravated by civilians who prescribe the roles they need veterans to enact to fit civilian ideals or stereotypes of soldiers. Too many people remain oblivious to the cost of war.

To earn the friendship of veterans requires listening to their struggles with an open, caring heart. We also must be willing to examine with honesty our own relation to wars conducted in our name and for our benefit, whatever we personally think of a particular war.

Without understanding how war changes people forever, we will continue to consign many veterans to civilian hell and to a self-inflicted end to their suffering.

It need not be that way. Whatever we think of war, we can take responsibility for the lingering legacy of war.

If we don’t, we will continue to be haunted by the war that comes home.

The Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock is a research professor of theology and culture and founding co-director of The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.

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