I just had lunch with three veterans – two from Vietnam era service and one from two deployments in Iraq – and their stories were oh so familiar: They all know veteran friends who have taken their own lives after returning to civilian life. This epidemic rolls on without much awareness on the part of the general public. The fact that known suicides keep coming at an average of 23 each day is shocking. We have lost more combat vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to suicide than on the battlefield.
The issue includes what has come to be defined as PTSD, but it is much more than that. It also includes moral injury, the violation of one’s internal moral code. It also has something to do with the radical disconnect between the soldiers we send into battle and mainstream culture. They represent a very slender proportion of the population, these vets do. Their service – often far away and remote in public consciousness – is a very abstract thing. And we – all those who by extension sent them to where they were wounded in body and soul and took the lives of others – have done little to welcome them all the way home. We have not provided a place of cleansing, purification, acceptance, adjustment and belonging.
This issue is so very important on many different levels. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum or how you happen to assess whether any particular war is just. As long as we send men and women to war we are responsible for their eventual healing. Efforts are now afoot in Columbia, Missouri to do just that. We are organizing networks of vets, their families and those who work with them to find a better solution.
Our plans include hosting seminars to present the primary issues at stake such as moral injury, establishing healing circles in which wounded warriors may find healing on the other side of their deployment, and retreats for veterans to address their inner wounds and seek the transformation that may come through community and spirit.
This is no small thing. It will require efforts from the faith community and others to address it. In the end this crisis itself may make us more circumspect about the ways in which we send young men and women into harm’s way. And those who have been there and know what it really means will raise the most serious and relevant questions.