The disheartening stories of veteran suicides — about one every hour — seem to multiply each September during Suicide Prevention Month. Years of concern with little or no progress can lead to compassion fatigue. Now there is more we can do than grieve, worry, or pressure the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Now we can help change the endings of these stories by learning about new research on an invisible wound so many veterans carry. It’s called moral injury.
Our veterans’ ministry team at Church of the Resurrection has partnered with the Soul Repair Center at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The group is coming to Kansas City Oct. 28-31 to share what it knows with its first-ever national conference on moral injury. Over 40 experts will offer information and ways to support veterans’ mental health. The conference will be held at Unity on the Plaza and Community Christian Church. Continuing education credits are available for professionals.
PTSD, a familiar term, is an intense fear reaction to life-threatening conditions that can cause nightmares and flashbacks to the terror of battle. Moral injury, however, is a new concept. It is related to survivor guilt, shame, grief, despair, disgust, alienation and outrage. Many veterans with moral injury are so ashamed of what they have done they don’t believe they deserve to be helped, so they don’t share their feelings — feelings like “no one will ever love me again if they know what I’m carrying inside.”
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It’s important to understand that moral injury is a normal response to the terrible things that war requires of our men and women in combat. I was a First Infantry Division battalion surgeon in Vietnam, so I know what it is like to come home from a combat zone and try to “get on with life.” I’ve carried memories that have haunted me for years.
VA psychiatrists, including those who are non-religious, suggest entire communities (including all religious communities) must be involved in the recovery process. One of the worst things about moral injury is the isolation, the feeling that, religious or not, these veterans believe they have failed in their deepest moral commitments and live in despair because of that failure.
The October conference (go to soulrepair.org for information) is a terrific opportunity for greater Kansas City to become a life-saving community for veterans. The chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Margaret G. Kibben, will preach the opening service at the conference, and another Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes, best-selling author of “Matterhorn” and “What It’s Like to Go to War,” will speak on opening night.
Mayor Sly James recognized the conference “for responding to and honoring the lives and health of veterans living with and recovering from war trauma.”
If you have a family member or friend who is a veteran, I hope you will attend this conference. It’s time we all understand how we can help prevent veteran suicides. Veterans have horrifying stories. Let’s help them learn to write better endings.
H.C. Palmer, a Lenexa physician, is assistant poetry editor of Narrative magazine and a member of the RezVets Veterans Ministry Team at Church of the Resurrection.