Addressing soldiers’ spiritual wounds

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The riveting story by The Associated Press about Sgt. Marshall Powell’s combat related “moral injury” (Sun Journal, Sunday, April 16) has application in Maine.

With 127,234 veterans, 94,604 of whom are wartime veterans (source: Department of Veterans Affairs) the necessity of addressing the spiritual wounds of American military who served in war-torn countries has long been overlooked.

Spiritual wounds differ from post-traumatic stress disorder in that moral injuries entail a violation of the conscience (moral values and practice) and/or belief in a just and good “higher power” of sorts that is assumed to be ultimately in charge.

War, by its very nature, exacts a toll on innocent people and communities. Furthermore, it can unleash the darkest elements of the human psyche given the nature of the task (death and destruction to dominate and prevail) demanded from those who are embroiled in it.

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As a country, we can learn much from the post-genocide efforts of Rwanda to promote transparency, forgiveness and healing within its communities as America searches to facilitate the reintegration of its military sons and daughters.

Although “bad things can happen to good people,” good people can do bad things when circumstances or necessity dictate.

I count myself fortunate that I have never had to make a split-second decision about whether to risk my safety or the safety of my comrades or kill a human shield (perhaps even a child), or witness that event. Please note, that is a good reason to never ask a returning soldier, “did you kill anyone?”

We sent those who pledged an oath to do what our nation deemed both critical and vital for the safety and well-being of our country to do a “job” and we have a social responsibility and moral obligation to help them contend with the consequences of what they have seen and/or done, regardless of our personal position on whether or not we approve of any given war (remembering that it is our elected-by-us officials who dictate foreign policy and military engagement).

Noted psychiatrist and author Dr. Jonathan Shay coined the phrase and concept of “moral injury” based on his work with Vietnam veterans. Although often coexisting with post-traumatic stress disorder, without specifically addressing the moral aspects of battleground activity individuals with this operative will have limited symptom relief, despite psychological and/or psychiatric interventions.

The resulting problems stymie mental health clinicians who flirt with professional ethical considerations when tackling what can be construed as religious concerns, or ignore them altogether.

Conversely, clergy and pastoral affiliates typically feel unqualified to counsel individuals with military service-related mental health issues and can also choose to not go there in sessions with veterans.

In fact, last fall, I attended a conference at the Maine VA Medical Center in Togus that was intended to get mental health providers and church pastors and their associates to cross the great divide to initiate and facilitate a rapport and knowledge base between both professions to benefit such veterans.

Feeling guilt and shame and chancing stigma, veterans might be loathe to approach either sector with what is behind their malaise.

I strongly encourage clergy or pastoral staff to please consider attending the “Building Worlds Together” conference on Sept. 19 in Farmington to cultivate spiritual resources and become acquainted with the issues intrinsic to military service during wartime. It could save a marriage, a family, or even a life.

The Rev. Peter Bauer, a retired lieutenant colonel who is a VA social worker and former Navy chaplain, is the keynote speaker. He is nationally acclaimed as an expert in the education and treatment of the spiritual wounds (aka “moral injury”) of veterans who have served in recent and historic wartimes.

Kevin Mannix, a local celebrity/meteorologist, who has recently released a book chronicling his journey to better mental health, “Weathering Shame,” will be a featured speaker.

Additionally, a number of breakout sessions covering veteran-related topics will be available. Both attendance and lunch are free. For more information or to register, contact Jerry DeWitt by email at: jdewitt@tcmhs.org, or call 207-783-4663 x228

Along with Alaska and Montana, Maine is one of the top three states for the highest percentage of military veterans (roughly one in 10 adults). Our military’s strength and community fitness depend on the inclusion of solid spiritual expertise and involvement.

Nancy Dubord is a veteran advocate and a member of the Maine Military and Community Network. She lives in Lewiston.

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