Veterans Day: Understanding Moral Injury

“In the midst of war our wounds were as undeniable as the blood-stained hands that kept pressure on them. But coming home? Coming home, it is possible to bleed out from the open wounds in our souls.” – Adam Tietje, United Church of Christ Military Chaplain [i]

michael-neuroth.jpgPresident Obama recently announced that 5,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2017. This announcement ensures that America’s longest war will drag on for even longer, compounding the already heavy burden borne by our military and their families. Many soldiers in Afghanistan have already served multiple tours of duty. We are only just starting to understand the impact these wars and multiple deployments have had on them as we welcome these veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan home each year.

One thing we do know is that, for many veterans, the trauma of war pales in comparison to the challenges they face upon their return. As one veteran, Captain Tyler Boudreau, describes it, “War is the foyer to hell: coming home is hell.” [ii]

Many veterans feel out of step with life that continued on while they were deployed. Recent veterans face higher rates of unemployment and are disproportionately more likely to experience poverty or homelessness in their lifetime. Some return home with wounds that impact them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Veterans are 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Although Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) has long been associated with the experience of veterans, researchers, and the Veterans Administration itself, have begun to recognize the moral and spiritual impact of war.  

The concept of ‘moral injury’ was introduced by Jonathan Shay to define the psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma that can result from acting in violation with one’s own deeply held values or beliefs. It can be expressed as feelings of guilt, anger, remorse, or despair. Moral Injury is not limited to those in the military, but it has been embraced by many veterans as a way of describing the moral and spiritual dissonance they feel in response to experiences in combat.

Over the past several years, Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and her colleagues at the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School have broadened public awareness of Moral Injury and deepened the study of the spiritual dimensions of Moral Injury. Brock contends that in the same way the military uses rituals and communitarian values to turn a civilian into a warrior, the church can use its rituals and values to restore and heal wounded veterans.

ucc-chaplains.jpgIn 2013, the United Church of Christ took an important first step in recognizing Moral Injury through its passage of a resolution at General Synod titled “To Recognize the Need for Compassionate Care and Healing to Our Veterans.” The resolution was brought by a group of churches in Northeast Ohio that were committed to veteran ministries. The text of the resolution calls upon all UCC settings to engage in ministries of welcoming and healing with returning veterans and identifies the Soul Repair Center as a resource and partner. The resolution also articulates why extending compassionate care to veterans is a ministry that fits our witness as the UCC.

As a denomination, extending an “extravagant welcome” to all without exceptions is central to our identity. However, extending an extravagant welcome to veterans does not simply mean an open door, but rather offering, with informed intention, a welcome of compassionate care and restorative healing. It would mean a welcome that is cognizant of the wounds some carry as a result of their military service.

This ministry of welcome and healing is not only a ministry to veterans, but can be seen as a ministry to the whole. As the resolution states, extending a compassionate welcome is also a way of bringing “peace to veterans, their families and the world.” [iii] Thus, the call to welcome and restore veterans can also be seen as part of our calling as a denomination committed to peace, Just Peace, committed to the restoration of the whole of God’s people and creation. As it states in 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

In recent years, several UCC congregations have begun to study Moral Injury and worked in intentional ways to offer a compassionate welcome to veterans into their community. Moral Injury has been introduced as a concept to our military chaplains through the work of Rev. Stephen B. Boyd, who works for Local Church Ministries as our Ecclesiastical Endorser and Minister for Chaplains and Ministers in Specialized Settings. Rev. Boyd has spoken on the topic of Moral Injury at conference meetings and is available to support conferences, associations, and congregations interested in learning more about Moral Injury and ministry with veterans.

Veterans’ Day is not simply a day to pray for and thank our veterans and military chaplains. It is rather a day to learn more about the challenges veterans face and in new ways find ways to extend, as churches and individuals, compassionate care and healing to veterans in our communities.


This piece was written with help from Rev. Stephen Boyd, UCC Minister for Chaplains and Specialized Ministers.

[i] Taken from “A Hermeneutic of Belief” meditation presented by Adam Tietje

[ii] Capt. Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine

[iii] GS 29 Resolution: “To Recognize the Need for Compassionate Care and Healing to Our Veterans”







Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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