Friday, March 21, 2014

On "Moral Injury": residue from empire's wars past

This too we must learn from our country's wars of empire in the '00s: not only did we leave in our wake hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans and over 5000 dead of our own in two countries which we never understood. Those countries remain trashed and burning. Thousands of our former soldiers suffer not only from lingering physical wounds, but also the misplaced adrenaline rush we label PTSD. In addition a significant fraction of these veterans experience an enduring form of trauma that those who seek to treat it call "moral injury."

David Wood, senior military correspondent for the Huffington Post, has published a searing series of three articles on Moral Injury written from the perspectives of various "grunts," "recruits," and of those who attempt to heal the sufferers. Read it all, starting here.

The entire rest of this post consists of short excerpts.

  • Moral injury is not officially recognized by the Defense Department. But it is moral injury, not PTSD, that is increasingly acknowledged as the signature wound of this generation of veterans: a bruise on the soul, akin to grief or sorrow, with lasting impact on the individuals and on their families.
  • “Definitely a majority” of returning veterans bear some kind of moral injury, said William P. Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist and a pioneer in stress control and moral injury. He deployed as a battlefield therapist with Marines during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. “People avoid talking about or thinking about it and every time they do, it’s a flashback or nightmare that just damages them even more. It’s going to take a long time to sort that out.”

It was a young Afghan boy, Martz found out later, who detonated 40 pounds of explosives beneath Martz’s squad. He was one of the younger kids who hung around the Marines. Martz had given him books and candy and, even more precious, his fond attention. The boy would tip them off to IEDs and occasionally brought them fresh-baked bread. One day, as Martz’s platoon walked a routine patrol, the boy yanked a trigger wire from a hidden position. Whether he had been a secret enemy all along or whether some incident had turned him against the Americans are questions Martz wrestles with to this day.

... Martz told me that he looks on that incident as his own failure because he didn’t spot the IED before it went off. Because he didn’t warn his men away. “I’d say one of the things I struggle with the most is, all my guys got hurt and I let them down. It’s a constant movie, replaying that scenario over and over in my head. I constantly question every decision I made out there.”

Almost three years later, he’s “kind of stuck,” he said. He seems to be moving on with his life, taking college courses to become a mental health therapist. But inside, he’s not healed. “I have a hard time feeling comfortable around kids, because it was that kid that we got close to, and to have that same kid turn around and blow you up, it shatters your reality of what’s OK and what’s not OK. Your trust has been ruined and broken. The only ones you trust are the guys you went with.”

Stephen Canty, now 24, is living in Charlottesville, Va., and trying to make sense of his own wartime experience. He told of manning a vehicle checkpoint one day, when along came a middle-aged man on a moped with two bruised little boys on the back. They had makeup on and their mascara was running because they were crying, and the Marines knew they’d been raped. “So you check ‘em,” Canty said of the men and boys, “and they have no weapons, and by our mission here they’re good to go – they’re OK! And we’re supposed to keep going on missions with these guys.

“Your morals start to degrade.”

On his second combat deployment in Afghanistan, Canty shot and killed an Afghan who was dragged into the Marines’ combat outpost just before he died. “I just lit him up,” he recalled, brushing his long hair out of his eyes. “One of the bullets bounced off his spinal cord and came out his eyeball, and he’s laying there in a wheelbarrow clinging to the last seconds of his life, and he’s looking up at me with one of his eyes and just pulp in the other. And I was like 20 years old at the time. I just stared down at him … and walked away. And I will … never feel anything about that. I literally just don’t care whatsoever.”

But Canty wondered what kind of person didn’t have qualms about killing. “Are you some kind of sociopath that you can just look at a dude you shot three or four times and just kind of walk away? I think I even smiled, not in an evil way but just like, what a fucked-up world we live in – you’re a 40-year-old dude and you probably got kids at home and stuff, and you just got smoked by some dumb 20-year-old.

[A medic explains] " ... moral injury is the one that really gets you,” she said. “It’s hard to find yourself again, because you’re never going to be the same person. I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself for everything I did over there, and it’s hard to figure out." ...

We, the people of the United States, didn't stop these wars; our country proved unable to "win" them. Those of us who have long been part of the peace movement helped make it impossible for the US to use enough force to simply wipe out stubborn faraway peoples; maybe that's something. Maybe it is not.

The least we can do is listen attentively and respectfully to the victims who come home to us. As the military downsizes, these severely injured former soldiers have to try to make it among people who have no idea what they've experienced.

Wood's articles each conclude with a resource list for vets who suspect themselves to be suffering from moral injury.

1 comment:

Theo said...

This is a tragedy and its effects will be felt for a long time. I've been visiting a patient at the VA who is being treated for cancer most likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. And, that, of course, is just the physical damage; though this guy is spiritually fit as a fiddle.

It is important to note also that kids growing up in parts of Oakland with high exposure to community violence (shootings, etc.) are now being diagnosed with PTSD in their late teens and early twenties. There is a war on at home, too, whose victims we are ignoring, the consequences of which will last a long time.

Related Posts with Thumbnails