Healing Moral Wounds
Because the Soul Repair Center was the first of its kind, no one knew what would happen after the opening ceremony.
“I don’t think I expected the massive flood of expectations and demands on us,” Brock said.
Baker agreed. “There is an enormous amount of interest,” he said. “For me, that’s been the biggest surprise, just how much this has caught on. … But when you explain it, people say, ‘Well, of course.’ ”
The Soul Repair Center’s website describes moral injury as the result of individuals “having to make difficult moral choices under extreme conditions, experiencing morally anguishing events or duties, witnessing immoral acts, or behaving in ways that profoundly challenge” a person’s values.
That psychic injury manifests itself, center directors say, in feelings of survivor guilt, grief, shame, remorse, anger, despair, and in feelings of mistrust toward and betrayal by authorities. In its most severe forms, the website says, moral injury “can destroy moral identity and the will to live.” That kind of pain can make a veteran’s struggle to return to civilian life “even more difficult than serving in war and [can] last a lifetime,” the site says.
Studies on the subject are still new, but researchers have estimated that as many as a third of veterans experience acute moral injury. And those are the folks most likely to try to hurt themselves in some way.
Keizer estimated that he gets more than 30 emails every day about moral injury, from veterans and their supporters.
Brock attends discussion groups with veterans from every age and in every situation, including those in prison.
“I think that most people feel that we’ve named something that’s important,” said Keizer, who was badly injured in Vietnam in a helicopter accident before serving as an army chaplain for 34 years. Moral injury, he said, “has been called by a lot of other names, but really it’s a deep religious and spiritual kind of problem.”
Soul Repair Center directors speak often about how the clash between military values and civilian culture sometimes leads to internal dilemmas and moral injury for those in or formerly in military service.
“I was recruited by GI Joe.”
That’s how Prysner thinks of it. He was 17, a Florida high school student, and very naive.
“I was going and fighting in this brave, heroic cause,” Prysner recalled. “Coming home, everyone loves you and will take care of you for the sacrifice you’ve made.”
He joined the army in a relatively peaceful time, and he believed, “The U.S. military was this force for good in the world that spread democracy and human rights and all.”
In basic training, he found that his romanticized notions of soldiering did not jibe with the reality of his training.
“One of the things you notice getting into basic training is that you’re heavily indoctrinated into a very violent, macho culture. And so you yell the word ‘KILL’ all day, every day,” he said.
Prysner, now of Los Angeles, left for basic training in Fort Sill, Okla., on his 18th birthday –– a few months before the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Many young people see military service as a good job, a route to college, a way to see the world, or a means to avoid jail time in a criminal case. Or, like Prysner, they believe in the cause or at least the romantic image of it.
Keyte, too, found basic training replacing her own emotional operating system. She also found that the new values contrasted sharply with her essential qualities as a woman.
“You learn to kind of be hard,” she said. “Because we’re not allowed to be as emotional … and that’s a little bit different.”
Brock wants young people to understand that the decision to enter the military is one that “will change you forever.”
Those who go off to war “don’t come home like they were, and they will never be like they were,” she said.
Military trainers try to build solidarity within the ranks — sometimes by ostracizing their troops from the wider world — and stress that a soldier’s duty is simply to follow orders, and follow them well. Arguments about war and its justification are assigned to the politicians and those who elect them.
“GI means government issue,” Keizer said. “It means you’re expendable. The only thing the military talks about is how the war is conducted. It is the civilian government that’s supposed to talk about going to war.”
Prysner agreed with the assessment. “Looking back,” he said, “the ideal soldier that they seek is one that is kind of unquestioning in their role of carrying out orders to the T without any critical thinking about them at all.”
The tragedy of 9/11 shifted the world under Prysner’s feet. There were discussions in every part of the country about how the United States should respond. But Prysner was in the army by that time — and officers didn’t want to hear it.
Officers told him, “It’s not our job to think about these things. It’s our job to go fight,” he recalled. “And that was the overarching moral that we had impressed upon us.”
But Prysner continued to think about the big questions of war and his own role in it. In 2003, he volunteered to deploy to Iraq even though he never believed the argument about weapons of mass destruction.
“I bought into the idea that it would be some kind of humanitarian intervention — that the Iraqi people wanted the U.S. military to come and overthrow the Iraqi government. I believed … we would be going there to help the Iraqi people and give them a better life,” he said.
Keyte eventually deployed to Iraq, too, leaving her husband and 15-month-old son in Texas.
Both made great personal sacrifices in serving and honoring their commitments to the military. And both came home with different forms of moral injury — a broad umbrella that covers anything from shame at what one did to a sense of betrayal by military leaders, to loss of a close friend.
“I was there believing I was this hero,” Prysner said. “This selfless hero going in and helping people in [Iraq]. And the people who were trying to kill us –– the people who wanted to attack us –– were people who were for all these bad things that we wanted to get rid of.”
Prysner thought his unit would be on the ground a few months, but as his deployment dragged on, his beliefs about his service began to change.
During the year he spent in Iraq, he participated in interrogations of innocent people, many of them wounded, and in home invasions of terrified Iraqi civilians.
“I saw myself in a role that I didn’t want to be in,” he said. “I started to see myself as kind of the bad guy. I started to identify with the Iraqis who were resisting. … I put myself in their shoes and realized that, if I were them and looking at me as the soldier, I would not like who I was.”
The most lasting effect of his military service, Prysner said, “has been just guilt over things … that I wish I had not been a part of,” he said. “I remember different Iraqis, different situations where I felt I was not acting in a way that I would want to morally.”
Keyte’s guilt wasn’t over her actions with her National Guard unit in Iraq but over leaving behind her young son. She also felt the classic mistrust of and betrayal by authorities.
She ended up being extremely disappointed with her own military unit.
“Their treatment of women was not the best,” she said of the officers in charge of her unit. “We should be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. … I was walking around on eggshells trying to watch my back with the people I served with. And I kind of just closed in on myself.”
Pictures of her baby provided an incentive to survive the deployment and return to her family. “My daily countdown was to get away from these people and to get back home,” she said.
Keizer believes that feelings of betrayal, wrestling of the conscience, and deep-seated moral injury are far more common among veterans than anyone realizes. “The only people who don’t have a conscience about things are psychopaths and sociopaths,” he said.
Keizer said he had never been as angry as he was when the U.S. military retreated from Vietnam. “I watched those helicopters taking off from our embassy and watched us leave so many of the Vietnamese who had helped us. And I thought about every letter of sympathy I wrote. … I lost it. I went to the river and threw rocks at God and cursed and cried. What a waste. What a terrible, pitiful waste.”
Keyte remembers similar feelings. “I’d always had a really good outlook, believing everything happens for a reason” she said. “When I got back, it was really, really hard for me to see that.”
Both dealt with their problems, in part, by talking about what had happened and, eventually, by helping other veterans who were in the same place in their heads.
Both intuitively followed the steps that directors of the Soul Repair Center now advocate.
Brock and Keizer encourage veterans to embrace openness and talk as often and as long as they need to about their experiences and their feelings. They suggest finding self-forgiveness and healing through participating in non-military service toward others and forging long-term life plans instead of wallowing in the injury.