What is a “Moral Injury?”

In my book WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us, I take a different view of moral injury than many other experts in my field.

Based on more than a decade of walking with warriors in the trenches of mental warfare, I’ve observed that there are a number of fundamental paradoxes about the nature of moral injury that are not captured in our current understanding.

For example, moral injury can occur in the flash of a millisecond, in the context of a decision that haunts us for decades. But on the other hand, it doesn’t require a discrete event to create a moral injury.

Another paradox is that moral injuries are not just related to what we do and don’t do. In other words, moral injuries are not always a result of our actions or inability to take action. Certain circumstances can conspire to breed moral injuries that limit our potential and create a cancerous form of shame.

To go even further, just surviving when others we love don’t, shifts the entire moral framework for the rest of our lives. Consider the case of an Iraq War veteran who has been hit by a roadside bomb and suddenly evacuated from the combat zone.

In his head, he may know that he is too injured to get back in the action. But he nonetheless yearns to be back in Iraq – defending those to his right and left, brothers and sisters in arms that he loves in a way that cannot be put into words.

The initial survivor guilt he felt for being pulled out of danger, with his life intact, while others are still vulnerable to enemy bombs, can transform over time into an all-consuming feeling of shame that he is “unworthy” and a “burden” who “does not deserve to be out of danger” when his peers are still in harm’s way.

There is also a deep attachment wound that we often miss. Being suddenly cut off from people who are family to him becomes something like phantom limb pain that haunts him for the next decade.  And this is why bringing the Tribe of those who served together – who would lay their lives down for each other – is absolutely critical. There is no substitute for this, especially after military discharge – it’s less peer support, and closer to something like re-attaching a missing limb.

Want to Learn More?  Here is a link to where you can pick up a copy of my book WARRIOR