Soul Repair

Have you ever noticed how many Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable talking about war, and veterans?  And how few military families there are in our pews?  Last year I lit a candle here, in honor of the sacrifices of veterans.  There was a palpable feeling of tension in the room as I spoke these words:

“Veterans’ Day was originally called Armistice Day.  It was a celebration of the end of World War I.  It was a celebration of peace.  Later, after World War II and the conflict in Korea, it became Veterans Day.  It was set aside to honor the sacrifices of all those who have served in the United States armed forces.

Some of those veterans were drafted.  But for others, serving their country was and remains a calling.  Many soldiers enlist because they feel called to serve and protect, even at the cost of their own lives.  May there come a day when answering a call to serve, and protect, does not mean being sent to war.  May we together work toward that day.”

The room relaxed as I finished.  “Whew!  She walked that line pretty well, that line between mindless patriotism on one side and scorn for veterans on the other.”

Then we moved on to a completely different topic.

Today we are not going to move on to a different topic.  We are going to stay on this difficult and potentially painful topic, because sometimes that’s what we most need to do.  Today is Veterans Day and I am going to talk about veterans.

For many years, I was one of those UU’s who was uncomfortable talking about veterans, and about war.  And so were most people in my home church.  We were appalled by the wars our country was involved in and we didn’t see how anyone with half a brain could be fooled into signing up.  We did not want to celebrate militarism, or make war seem in any way heroic.  We were also quite sensitive, and we didn’t want to hear the details of atrocities in church.  So, we walked the line between celebrating war and denouncing it by just ignoring it.

Then, about five years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, a group of us were putting on an intergenerational service about a completely different theme.  Afterward, two mothers approached us.  Both were deeply involved in the church, and they were gifted women whom I greatly admired.  They said,

“How could you not even MENTION that tomorrow is Memorial Day!  Our husbands are serving in Iraq and we are afraid for their lives every day.  How can we feel held by this congregation if you don’t even MENTION Memorial Day?!”

Well.  I was astounded.  These two women were in military families?  There are military families in Unitarian Universalism?  Which shows you just how how little I knew.  Later I was talking about this with a close friend from our church, and he said, “You know, I used to be a Navy pilot.”  You could have knocked me over with a feather.

He went on to explain why he had joined up.  Like many people who enlist, his family was poor.  He was deeply lonely, and he wanted to feel like he belonged somewhere.  He wanted to devote himself to something bigger than he was, give his life to some larger purpose. He wanted an education.  He wanted meaningful work, in which he would be respected.  There were no real opportunities where he lived, and wanted to go places in the world.  He wanted health care.  He loved ceremony and pageantry.  The military offered him all of that.  Is there anything else that does?

Those conversations were real eye-openers for me.  They were heart-openers.  I began to understand soldiers as human beings with human needs.  I began to understand military families as…just…families, who have the same problems as other families, plus others.

Then I met Chris Antal.  Chris is a young UU minister who serves as a chaplain in the United States Army.  Does it surprise you, that a UU minister would become a military chaplain?  When we have so many other options?  But Chris isn’t like me.  He doesn’t have a lot of other options.  He and his wife have four very young children, and they are poor.  “Dirt poor,” are his exact words.  He had two options if we wanted to follow his call to ministry.  One was to take out gigantic student loans.  The other was to enter the military.  Ministry doesn’t pay particularly well, and Chris didn’t see how his family could get by on a minister’s salary if he had a huge load of debt.

But that is not the main reason he chose military chaplaincy.  It matters, but it’s not the main reason. Chris told me the main reason is this: “As long as we continue to send people to war, we have an obligation to accompany them.  To minister to them.  The more unjust the war, the more this is true.  We cannot abandon the people we send into harm’s way.”

Oh, was I humbled.  As long as we continue to send people into war, we must accompany them.  And he is accompanying them, all the way into battle.  This fall Chris was deployed with his unit to a place he’s not allowed to name.  I haven’t heard from him since.

Not everyone can be a military chaplain; you have to be young and strong to do it.  So how can the rest of us accompany soldiers and veterans?  As long as we continue to send people to war, as long as they go there believing they are serving us, and they come back damaged and broken, we must care for them.  How?

Perhaps the first thing we can do is try to understand what it is like for them.  Why did they go into the military?  What happened to them in battle?  What do they face when they come back?

We’ve heard from my Navy friend about the very human reasons why young people enlist.  Chris told me that now there’s another dimension.  He said, “Most of the boys in my unit enlisted the minute they turned eighteen.  They grew up in New York.  They watched the Twin Towers fall.  Some of them lost family members.”  Chris’ soldiers feel a deep need to defend what it is precious to them, to make sure the attackers do not attack again.  They want to make the world safe for their loved ones.

The next question is, when these soldiers get there, what is it like for them?  Chris Hedges is a career war correspondent who has written several books denouncing war.  One is called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.  In it he talks about two opposing forces, eros and thanatos.  The force of life, as experienced in erotic love, and the force of death, as experienced in battle.  Both are equally powerful in the human psyche, he says.  Both heighten the senses, focus the attention, subsume the small individual self into something as vast as the sky.  Soldiers who have been in war describe combat in almost erotic terms.  Hedges says that war “seduces combatants with…a powerful elixir of noble purpose and meaning…an antidote to the shallowness of consumer culture and aimless and marginalized lives…”

In war, the soldiers are intensely bonded, intensely focused on surviving from one minute to the next.  In the particular kind of war that is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military of one country is not fighting the military of another country.  Instead, soldiers are fighting what our country calls “insurgents.”  Who can be anybody, using anything as a weapon, including a child or a pet, and using anything or anyone as a shield, including a child or a pet.  There is no way for soldiers to tell who is a combatant and who is not, so they have to be alert 100 percent of the time, focused on protecting their friends 100 percent of the time, in contact with each other 100 percent of the time.  The depth of relationships that develop is like nothing else except the very first throes of romantic love.  This kind of intensity is addictive.

And at the same time, soldiers must carry out tasks and orders that require them to violate their own innermost being, their own internal moral code.

The most basic human moral precept is never kill another human being.  Never take another human life.  Young people learn this from their families, their neighbors, teachers, their churches.  By the time they are teens it is deeply rooted in their consciousness. It is so deeply ingrained that during World War II, a study found that nearly 75 percent of soldiers would not fire directly at an enemy, even when their own lives were at risk.

Well, that had to be changed, so the military developed training in reflexive firing, which means firing a weapon on command without thinking at all.  By the time of the Korean war, soldiers were firing directly at the enemy 50 to 60 percent of the time, and in Vietnam it was 85-90 percent.

What happens to these killing machines when they truly realize what they have done?

“Mac” Bica calls it “moral injury.”  Mac served in Vietnam and has been trying to recover ever since.  He became a philosopher of war to try to make sense of his experiences and those of his fellow veterans.  He uses the term moral injury to differentiate what happens to a person’s soul when they violate their moral code, from the PTSD that happens when they are exposed to life-threatening situations.

My colleagues Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini have just written a book called Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War.  They say:

“Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.”

When soldiers come back from war, they have left the most intense relationships of their life.  Some of their closest friends have been killed, often right next to them.  They experience both moral injury and PTSD, along with grief, and the pain of their physical injuries.  They may have brain injuries caused by concussions from bomb blasts.  And they come back to…what?  A consumerist society in which most people are oblivious to the fact that a war is happening at all?  In which people spend most of their time shopping and watching television and talking on phones and computers?  Veteran Tyler Boudreau says, “they say war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell.  I say coming home is hell…you’re lost.”

Veterans are so lost that they are committing suicide at a rate of 18 per day.

These veterans understand that they are not victims, in the way that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have died during the past ten years were victims.  The veterans know the harm they have caused, and that is exactly their problem.

What can be done to help repair their souls?  Is it even possible to do so?

In the past 40 years, Mac Bica has found that the first step in repairing the soul of a veteran is talking to other veterans.  Only other veterans can understand.  That may seem obvious, but when Mac first came back from Vietnam, no support groups existed.  The treatment of choice for traumatized veterans was thorazine.  Veterans at VA hospitals who wanted to meet together and talk, had to do so secretly.  Now there are support groups for vets at VA hospitals—but there are not enough, and they are not always easy to get into.  Most vets have to fight the VA tooth and nail to get the care they need.  And many veterans go back to civilian life in towns where no support is available at all.   How are they to begin recovering?  Many of them just don’t.

What’s available here, in this town, to support veterans?

The next thing veterans need is support from family and friends—and those family and friends need support themselves.  Again, where are they to get it?  The VA just does not offer enough.  What is available here?  Do you know?

The third thing veterans say they need is a welcoming community where they can tell their truth. Not the kind of community that calls them heroes and offers them parades and yellow ribbons.  They say this only makes things worse for them, because they do not feel like heroes.  They cannot live up to the expectations of heroes.  What they need instead is to share their anguish with people who will listen to them with open minds and hearts, who will be present with them no matter what they say.  They don’t necessarily want to describe the violence they have seen and done.  They want to tell us about their pain.  They need us to read their poetry, to watch their films, to see their paintings, to go to their plays, to hear them speak.  They need us to stretch our hearts big enough to handle hearing from them about the consequences of what we asked them to do.

Camilo Mejia is an immigrant to this country who became a soldier because, like my friend, he was lonely and looking for somewhere to belong.  In Iraq, he was ordered to shoot a young man who was about to throw a grenade into a crowd.  He remembers looking through his rifle sight and then he remembers the young man lying dead in the street.  He has no memory of firing his weapon, although later he counted 11 bullets gone from its magazine.  Shortly afterward, he found out had a paperwork problem related to his immigration status.  He was given two weeks’ leave to go home and take care of it.  He visited his 4-year-old daughter, and realized, in his words:

“How could I ever teach my daughter right from wrong when I had done so wrong myself?  What moral authority did I have left to be a good father?”

Mejia found himself unable to go back to Iraq.  Although technically, as a non-citizen, he was supposed to have been discharged months before, officials called him a coward and refused to sign his papers.  He applied for conscientious objector status, but his application was never even looked at.  He went AWOL and went into hiding.  Finally he decided to go public with his opposition to the war.  He was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to a year in prison.  He said he had never felt freer, because “there is no higher exertion of your freedom than to follow your conscience.”  Camilo has found that telling his truth is an important step toward repairing his soul.

The fourth thing veterans need is to do something to make amends.  To atone.  Not to obtain cheap forgiveness by going to the scene of their crimes and distributing dollar bills, but to do something real to change the situation that led to the damage in the first place.  I want to read to you from Camilo Mejia’s testimony before a Truth Commission on Conscience in War:

“I don’t pity myself for living with moral injury. I believe we always have a chance to take the defining moments in life, however painful they may be, and either turn them into something positive, or let them continue to destroy the core of our moral being…My eyes are open and I no longer view the suffering of others as alien to my own experience.  I view hunger, disease, and the brutality of war and occupation as global-scale issues, not as issues of individual nations.  I believe those of us who have lived through war have a moral obligation to educate the public about what is being done in their name…if there is one thing I am certain about, it is that in committing great wrongs against others, I committed great wrongs against myself as well.  And with the certainty that it will take a lifetime to heal the injuries within me, I embark on this lifelong journey to heal the injuries of others.”

Finally, what veterans need from us is for us to join with them in the process of soul repair.  They need us take responsibility for starting unjust wars in the first place.  They want us to hold officials who launch such wars accountable, and prosecute them.  They want us to create a society in which no one need sign up to become a killer because they are poor and lonely, because they need food and health care, or because they want meaning and purpose.  In such a society there would be no need for killing.

Brock and Lettini write: “We cannot uphold our moral integrity by pleading an ignorance of facts, by claiming a war is legal, or by distancing ourselves from the leaders who declare a war.  To treat veterans with respect means to examine our collective relationship to war with the same…courage and integrity veterans themselves have modeled.”

Can we take this responsibility?  Can we examine our collective relationship with war with courage and integrity?  Can we hold our leaders accountable for the damage wars have done?  Can we accompany and care for the veterans who return?  Can we create a society in which all are cared for and all belong?

Here is a small way to start.  Before my friend Chris left for parts unknown, he told me that it would really help if Unitarian Universalists would start actively welcoming veterans into our churches.  It would really help if we would support families of veterans.  Especially in places like this one, far from the nearest military base.  He said, “Maybe you could start by talking about veterans on Veterans Day.”  I promised him I would.

I hope I get to tell him I kept my promise.

May it be so.  Blessed be.


All quotations from:

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Gabriella Lettini, 2013.  Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War. Beacon Press, Boston.

Hedges, Chris. 2002.  War is a Force That Gives us MeaningPublic Affairs, New York.