At the end of a maze of booths on the top floor of VFW’s Kansas City headquarters, Nick Lopez read a script for a veterans event he’s been working on for months. The theme was “Heroism in Service”.
“The journey of the classic hero first and foremost involves sacrifice,” Lopez began. The Navy veteran and coordinator of the VFW youth programs read what characterizes this trip: a call to adventure, a refusal to go, cross a threshold or fight internal and external monsters.
The event Lopez was planning – The Veteran Reader’s Theater – is in its fourth year. This summer, the current group of participants began working to smooth out the wrinkles in their personal stories of fighting these monsters. Many are trying to heal from a moral injury, a kind of cousin of the more well-known post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They wrote about their experiences and read their poems and stories at a virtual event in November.
Lopez heads the Kansas City Veterinary Writing Team, which is part of the Moral Injury Association of America and is sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council.
“Probably the biggest difficulty with veterans is sharing these experiences with those close to them,” he said. “They believe it is difficult for others to relate to what they have been through”
At the end of his screenplay, which featured the event online, Lopez said that when the adventurer returns home, “he might have a story to tell.” This is the signal for the start of the procession of nine readers.
One of the readers was Air Force veteran Heather Smoot, who wrote about the suffering inflicted by other servicemen:
My enemies wore the same clothes;
My career, they managed to dispose.
It was a most disappointing story
and although I often feel frail,
I faced the inner strength,
despite the extravagant lengths
they went to ruin my life.
The poem is peppered with anger, depression and shame, but in the end the voice takes a place of power:
I never wanted to be an unsung hero
but, enduring my trials, I grew.
I swore never to give up my life.
With my fate; I would have the last word.
PTSD and hurt feelings share certain characteristics: anger, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia.
“At worst, it’s self-medication with alcohol or drugs,” said Cindy McDermott, a Navy veteran and co-founder of the Kansas City-based Moral Injury Association of America.
However, McDermott said people with PTSD experience a startle reflex, memory loss, fears and flashbacks.
“When you look at the moral wounds, that’s when you see the awareness, the empathy coming in, and that’s when the veteran would suffer heartache, grief, regret, shame and alienation as well, ”she said.
Also, unlike PTSD, moral injury is not an easily diagnosed disorder, nor a disorder at all. It is caused by an action, or lack of action, that goes against a person’s basic moral values and results in great guilt or shame.
Rita Nakashima Brock, senior vice president and director of the Shay Moral Injury Center of Volunteers of America in Virginia, worked with McDermott to create the Kansas City Writers’ Group.
Brock gave the example of a young man she knew who enlisted in the military. In Iraq, the man and several of his teammates were ordered to shoot an Iraqi who threatened to throw a grenade.
“He doesn’t remember firing, but he does remember seeing this young man with a grenade in his hand and then seeing him lying in a pool of clearly dead blood,” Brock said.
Later, when the soldier looked at his magazine, he saw that he had fewer bullets than the last time he had checked. Brock said the soldier was suddenly certain he had killed the man.
“He was just devastated,” Brock said. “He realized that he had crossed a moral line in his life that he could never cross.”
Moral injuries also happen to civilians, such as medical professionals during the pandemic. Doctors and nurses have found themselves in battlefield-type situations deciding who will get ventilators or other equipment, and who will die.
“They’re not prepared for this in medical school,” Brock said. “And they can feel like they’re failing as medics because they’re not saving anyone.”
Because moral injury is not a medical condition and can go unnoticed for years, it cannot be resolved by filling a prescription. But Brock says writing helps because once the story is on paper, it is externalized.
“When they write it down, or speak it, or portray it, they might see it for the first time in a way that makes it something they could actually handle and use,” said Brock. “And this is the time when recovery is possible.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.