New Effort at Texas University Focuses on Combat Veterans’ Spiritual Wounds
by Chris Vaughn
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 5, 2012
FORT WORTH — War changes people. That is indisputable.
The changes differ infinitely, depending on the individuals, their background, age and maturity, their war, when they served, the place they served. It is counterproductive to stereotype.
But amid all the discussion in recent years of post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, a small group of mental-health professionals, military chaplains and civilian ministers now says some of the symptoms are what they call “moral injuries” that can involve guilt, shame, grief and betrayal.
“In the medical model, all the bad mental-health things that can happen come from PTSD,” said Brett Litz, a clinical psychologist and professor in Boston who is conducting research funded by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.
“That’s simplistic thinking. It says that the only harmful aspects of war are about life threats. That’s too narrow. Even though it’s controversial, it is critically important that we think about other ways that war affects people psychologically, biologically, spiritually and morally.”
Fort Worth is now on the front line of trying to understand, research and treat moral injuries. At the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation has funded the opening of the Soul Repair Center.
Even though it’s controversial, it is critically important that we think about other ways that war affects people psychologically, biologically, spiritually and morally — Brett Litz, clinical psychologist
Although the Soul Repair Center won’t officially open until Veterans Day, Brite is already ramping up the program, naming the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock and retired Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. co-directors and making contacts nationally in the mental-health field and the faith community.
Brite President D. Newell Williams promised that this is no academic exercise.
“The people setting the tone for this conversation will be veterans, not faculty,” Williams said. “Like any good program of repair and recovery, those who have suffered the injury bring the critical perspective. We expect that to be the case from the beginning of this to the end.”
The program is not limited to Iraq or Afghanistan veterans since there is a considerable population of Vietnam veterans still grappling with their combat experience. But at no time in U.S. history has there been more focus on the mental health of troops returning from war.
More than 2 million men and women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, including hundreds of thousands of National Guardsmen and reservists. Most of them have served multiple tours in a muddled combat situation, where the enemy is often indistinguishable from innocent civilians — or can’t be seen at all.
Many veterans have no lingering problems from their combat tours.
But others do. Since 2002, the VA has treated almost 224,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for post-traumatic stress, according to its records.
The Army has been accused of pushing soldiers with mental-health problems out of the service on disciplinary issues; civilian employment for many young veterans remains elusive; and, most alarmingly, suicides have been stubbornly high among active service members and veterans.
The VA recently said that 18 veterans commit suicide every day and that hundreds more, even those receiving care, are attempting suicide every month.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a medically defined anxiety problem caused by a life-threatening event, experts say. The symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance and emotional withdrawal.
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To get help
If you are a veteran struggling with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, suicidal thoughts or other issues, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. It is staffed around the clock. You can also chat at http://www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Symptoms of moral injuries
Anger about betrayal-based moral injuries
Purposelessness or social instability caused by a breakdown in standards and values
Withdrawal and self-condemnation
Alcohol or substance abuse problems
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
Nightmares about the traumatic event
Physical sensations when reminded of the event, such as sweating and difficulty breathing
Detachment from people
Alcohol or substance abuse problems
(Source: U.S. Veterans Affairs Department)