These veterans and thousands like them grapple with what some call “the war after the war” — the psychological scars of conflict. Working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and private organizations, these men and women are employing treatments both radically new and centuries old. At the center of their journey is a new way of thinking that redefines some traumas as moral injuries.
The psychological toll taken by war is obvious. For the second year in a row, more active-duty troops committed suicide in 2010 (468) than werekilled in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan (462). A 2008 RAND Corporation study reported that nearly 1 in 5 troops who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression.
Since the American Psychiatric Association added post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to its diagnostic manual in 1980, the diagnosis has most often focused on trauma associated with threats to a soldier’s life. Today, however, therapists such as Jonathan Shay, a retired VA psychiatrist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Edward Tick, director of the private group Soldier’s Heart; and Brett Litz, a VA psychologist, argue that this concept is too limited. What sometimes happens in war may more accurately be called a moral injury — a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society. In short, a threat in a solder’s life.
“My colleagues and I suspect that the greatest lasting harm is from moral injury,” says Litz, director of the Mental Health Core of the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiological Research and Information Center. He and six colleagues published an article on the topic in the December 2009 Clinical Psychological Review, in which they define moral injury as a wound that can occur when troops participate in, witness or fall victim to actions that transgress their most deeply held moral beliefs.
While the severity of this kind of wound differs from person to person, moral injury can lead to deep despair.
“They have lost their sense that virtue is even possible,” Shay says. “It corrodes the soul.”