“For me, that was probably the worst part of it, since I joined the Marine Corps and made the choice to go to war,” he said. “I just could not reconcile how I could ever be right with God again no matter what I did.”
Part of confronting moral injury, Harris said, is persuading returning soldiers to let go of the guilt they have literally mounted on themselves during deployments as a defense mechanism against the terrors they face.
“They will convince themselves that a horrible situation was their fault. ‘I didn’t use my combat skills well enough and my buddy died,’ ” Harris said. “It gets them through that situation without feeling helpless. But the price when they get home — using a false sense of guilt to try and stay in control — that eats them alive.”
Healing that spiritual distress is the goal of an ongoing clinical trial at the Minneapolis VA involving 150 veterans with PTSD. Half are being placed in standard group therapy at area churches and community centers, and half are attending sessions with specific spiritual components.
An earlier pilot study by Harris found the spiritually based group therapy to be safe. Now the goal is to find out if the sessions that focus on spirituality cause greater reductions in guilt, shame and spiritual distress.
A religious conflict isn’t necessarily at the root of moral injury, but it is a common one when considering that 90 percent of veterans believe in a higher power. Harris said her survey research from the National Guard showed moral injury among soldiers from different faiths, though she declined to identify whether it appeared more problematic among any particular religious or demographic group.
“I would not want that to be misinterpreted,” she said.
Timm, the National Guard chaplain, said he will never forget the looks in the eyes of the two soldiers who had shot the unarmed driver in Iraq in 2006.
After using lethal force, some soldiers can’t escape the belief that they have violated the commandment “thou shall not kill” even though scholars note the literal Hebrew translation is “thou shall not murder,” and allows for the potential for lethal force in just circumstances.
In counseling these soldiers, Timm said, it was sometimes necessary to simply move past the question of whether the killing in combat was just. In the Christian tradition, he noted, God forgives those who ask for forgiveness.
“You guys have heard that before,” he recalled telling the soldiers in Iraq. “but it’s going to have to sink in at a whole new level, isn’t it?”
Now, supervising the seven chaplains serving Minnesota Guard units, Timm said he has become more deliberate as he counsels soldiers preparing for deployments.
Military training by nature has a way of desensitizing troops to the use of lethal force almost of necessity. Trainers might use the term “kinetic military action” rather than terms such as killing or lethal force. This helps soldiers prepare for war, and the reflexive need to use lethal force to carry out missions and protect themselves. But sometimes soldiers overlook hard questions about whether their beliefs are consistent with those duties.
Advising a group of Minnesota Guard members before their 2012 deployment to a detention camp in Afghanistan, Timm asked the soldiers to contemplate what they would do if a prisoner tried to harm them, and how they would feel afterward.
“Whatever your faith tradition is,” he remembered telling them, “you had better be able to handle the life and death stuff.”
Clergy trained to gain trust
The Minnesota National Guard was a leader, nationally, with its Yellow Ribbon program to help soldiers return from deployments to their jobs, families and communities. That campaign also now trains local clergy on counseling returning soldiers and gaining their trust. Timm and Major Buddy Winn — a full-time support chaplain for the Minnesota Guard — trained a group of central Minnesota pastors at Camp Ripley in Little Falls last week.