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Bliss writes: "'Moral injury' places the cause on war itself. A disorder implies that something is permanently wrong, whereas the word 'injury' suggests that healing is possible. It also indicates that the problem was created by an outside force, rather than a mental illness or weakness from within."

A grieving soldier. (photo: ob1left/flickr)
A grieving soldier. (photo: ob1left/flickr)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or "Moral Injury"

By Shepherd Bliss, Reader Supported News

28 December 12

Reader Supported News | Perspective


y God, what have we done?" combat soldiers sometimes gasp as they see those they or comrades just killed, especially when they include innocent children, women, and other civilians.

"We knew that we killed them / ... the terrified mother / clutching terrified child," writes former Lieutenant Michael Parmeley in his poem "Meditation on Being a Baby Killer." In l968, Lt. Parmeley led a combat platoon in the American War on Vietnam. He receives benefits for what is clinically described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"My gunner ... started to cry," Parmeley writes. "There's a myth of recovery, / that you put it behind you / ... but memories aren't like that / ... I know that we killed them."

Parmeley and I have participated in the Veterans' Writing Group for twenty years. We attend regular meetings, break silences, tell our stories in a healing context, and listen without judgment. His poem appears in our book "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," ( edited by our writing teacher, award-winning author, and former University of California Berkeley professor Maxine Hong Kingston.

Would the best description of what Parmeley has be a "disorder?" Or might other words be more accurate?

"Moral injury" is a relatively new term to refer to what veterans and others experience, especially those who saw combat or violence. Other words that have been used include hidden war wounds, shell shock, battle fatigue, and soldier's heart.

"Moral injury" places the cause on war itself. A disorder implies that something is permanently wrong, whereas the word "injury" suggests that healing is possible. It also indicates that the problem was created by an outside force, rather than a mental illness or weakness from within.

"Every generation gives war trauma a different name," explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at our last vets' meeting. "Moral injury, the latest term, de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, and are not the same, troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core."

Chung later added, "That we vets suffer moral injury, despite the tremendous suffering and anguish it brings, is actually a validation of our humanity. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury."

The ruthless, recent murder of elementary students and teachers in Connecticut re-stimulates my grief about the deaths of children in wars. I have cried for hours about the loss of life in Newtown and what it says about us as Americans. The weapons used by the Connecticut killer were military weapons. His killing is connected to the ongoing murders by Americans in Afghanistan.

Parmeley concludes his poem as follows; "A Mother and child, / alone in a bunker, / a war passing over, / right now as I speak." Those words, which were written decades ago, remain true today - "a war passing over" - this time in Afghanistan.

What are we teaching our children? As the old sayings go, what goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, and the chickens come home to roost. The wars that we have trained people for may be coming home to the United States in more deadly ways.

I was also a young officer in the US Army during the same years as my vet buddy Parmeley. However, fortunately, I never made it to Vietnam. But I was raised in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and lived in Chile during "the other 9/11" - September 11, l973. I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I have been treated by psychiatrists, counselors, and at vets' centers.

But what has helped me most has been the support by vets and our allies to push through silence, shame, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness to speak and write about my condition.

"Sound Shy" entitles my essay in our book "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace." I suffer from sound trauma, after being raised on loud Air Force bases around the world where my family was stationed. Even today, decades later, certain sounds, such as weapon-like leaf blowers, can trigger my sound trauma and bring back the kinds of nightmarish "memories" about which Parmeley writes.

Much of my behavior is "sound-avoidant," seeking quietness. So I live and work on an organic farm, away from the concentration of people, closer to plants, animals, and the elements. I engage in what I have written about as agro-therapy - farms as healing places.

After leaving the military, I moved to Chile, where thousands of young people from around the world gathered to participate in the "democratic revolution" of Pres. Salvador Allende. Then Gen. Augusto Pinochet, supported by the US government, toppled Dr. Allende. Among those tortured and executed was my good friend Frank Teruggi.

I survived, and still live, nearly forty years later. But I bear what is described as "survivor's guilt" from that experience. Rationally, I know that it was not my fault that Frank was tortured and executed. But why him and not me? I still hear Frank crying out, inside.

In 2006, I received a summons from an attorney to appear before a judge in Chile investigating Frank's case. I went and testified. I also visited some of the torture centers. Though now transformed into peace parks, I could still feel the cries of those tortured. Is that really a disorder? Or does it indicate that humans have a natural kinship to other sentient beings and can sense their pain?

My Post-Traumatic Stress was triggered in Chile. But the term disorder does not seem accurate. I felt a kinship with the suffering of those tortured. I received what would be better described as a "moral injury," dating back to being raised in a military family, having served in the military, and then experiencing the loss of a buddy in my mid-twenties.

Such injuries leave a scar and do not disappear easily. The nervous system is re-wired and the physiology of the brain is altered, as a way to cope with them. They can lie dormant and then be re-stimulated by present-time wounds, such as one that I recently received. I was rejected to teach a section of a Leadership course at Sonoma State University, which I had successfully taught for three years. A person replacing me had never taught before or even been educated to teach.

So I am trying to tell my story and write my way out of having these sleepless nights and nightmares again.

Having "moral injury" can sensitize one, making a person hyper-vigilant. Yet others become de-sensitized to moral injury, the way they become de-sensitized to violence.

What I feel in my body at this moment in America's history is that the killing of so many young innocent children and their teachers at Sandy Hook School, and the continuing American War in Afghanistan, are dangerous signs for our future. The worse may be yet to come. It's time to wake up and focus our attention more on the mounting problems our violence bring us here, rather than deploy so many resources abroad.

It is not only vets who return from war with "moral injury." Since at least the American War in Vietnam, the US has been on a steady moral decline. Each time it invades another country, most recently Iraq and Afghanistan, it deepens our national "moral injury." What might be next? Iran? Pakistan? More children here?

See Also:Shepherd Bliss | Military Veterans Explore "Moral Injury"


Shepherd Bliss { This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it } teaches college in Northern California, farms, and has contributed to a couple of dozen books.

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+6 # reiverpacific 2012-12-28 12:15
I suggest that y'all attend and listen carefully to your closest "Veterans for Peace" meeting -they're all over the country.
Only THEY can understand and help their returning comrades with support and references to others.
+1 # Christopher Warren 2013-01-02 15:38
My call sign was Drydock 28 in II Corps 69-70

WAR IS OBSOLETE! It's just too expensive to do it!

Welcome Home Brothers and Sisters! Stand up against the Neo-con Chickenhawks! Tell them that if they want ti go to War THEY should enlist!
+2 # treadlightly 2012-12-28 12:32
Thank you so much. I have recently come to realize how difficult it must have been for my father to cope with life after his war experiences. I was looking at his discharge papers just last night. Stamped January 6 1946. I have also been looking into starting a meet-up group for anyone touched by the trauma of war, Combat Veterans, and their family and friends. I am not sure where the discussion might lead, but I know it is a discussion that is long overdue.
+5 # rlhollow 2012-12-28 12:51
USA? Morally Injured says it all.

Thank you, Mr. Bliss, for sharing your insights.
+1 # Nel 2012-12-28 13:10
Amen brother.
0 # roberth 2012-12-28 15:44
I got lucky. I installed the Davis 22 inch cyclotron at U Chile in 67-68 and got to meet the President Frei. The Chileans were very kind to me

The lab director had to leave when Agusto came in . I do not know what has happened to my friends.

Robert from

0 # DaveM 2012-12-28 15:46
"Moral injury" reflects the nation far more than it does the state of those affected by its misadventures. A person with PTSD or similar is a victim, not a person with a "moral fault" or other weakness. They have been placed in situations no human being should ever have to bear....and could not bear them.

Call them witnesses, call them survivors, call them casualties of war. But DO NOT call these brave men and women "morally injured". The moral issue lies entirely with those who sent them into hell, and expected them to emerge unscorched.
0 # Anarchist 23 2012-12-28 19:46
Other cultures have ceremonies for returning warriors, to help them re-balance their lives. We need more of that here in whatever form works best; story telling, writing is obviously a good one. Ceremony would be another but to each his /her own. I hope that more of our wounded find the healing they need, and our leaders stop being moral imbeciles.
+1 # Billy Bob 2012-12-28 22:13
Or "Moral Dissonance"

At any rate the morals we, as a nation, claim to be "fighting" for have nothing to do with the immorality of the actions being committed in our name.
+1 # bernadene 2012-12-29 00:15
Thank you so much for this truth. When the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets begin writing groups,we will hear so much more. From the perspective of a social critic of 50 years, I watched the degradation of the moral argument in society, with deep sorrow. Almost decimated. When the young men socialized in this culture went to the Mid-East, what happened, and continues to happen is inevitable. Blame is irrelevant. WE, ALL OF US MUST TAKE RESPONSIBILITY IF IT IS TO STOP. Few soldiers can withstand the pressure to be different. Sgt. Darby is one. [Exposed Abu Grhab -he lives in hiding i believe, to this day] and of course, Bradley Manning is another. Morally injured is all of US! And God help us all.
0 # Roger Kotila 2012-12-29 12:02
"Moral injury" touched on a sensitive subject with many veterans I treated during and after my '68-'69 psychology internship at the Palo Alto Veterans hospital. The call of conscience, especially after learning about America's evil Empire, has produced some of our best peace activists - veterans who face the truth and are willing to do something about it. But the problem is bigger than "fixing America". We must also change the global war system itself or we will continue to repeat the sins of the past. I joined the Earth Federation Movement Dr. Roger Kotila

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