Community Involvement in Healing the Morally Injured

As an Army psychologist named John Rigg wisely said, “Medication doesn’t fix this stuff.”

There’s often a disconnect between those who go to foreign lands to prosecute their nation’s wars and the communities that send them, at least in the US. Not only are they disconnected when they send them, it’s especially acute on the return.

There are no rituals that take collective responsibility for the horrors of war. Instead they expect that veterans quietly suffer like World War I I veterans did. A little known fact is that at one point there were more psychiatric casualties coming home from World War II than new troops being sent over.

During World War II, 504,000 men were lost from America’s combat forces due to psychiatric collapse. (Grossman & Siddle, 2010, p. 442). 

Grossman, D. L., & Siddle, B. K. (2010). Psychological effects of combat. In G. Fink (Ed.), Stress of war, conflict, and disaster (2nd ed., pp. 440–450). Sydney, Australia: Academic Press.

In building the modern warrior class, Western society has distanced itself from the psychological preparation and consequences of combat.  Societies have created and practiced rituals to activate the warrior archetype.  For example, in the past, elders and medicine men would have helped prepare warriors for combat through ritual.  In most Western societies today, these initiation rites, along with the clan chief, elders, and medicine men, have been supplanted by the initiation rituals of boot camp. 

Unfortunately, for the modern warrior, there has been little thought or practice given to ritualistically cleansing or reintegrating the warrior back into civil society upon his return from combat.  Instead, the individual is expected to reintegrate himself, make his or her own meaning and sit with the images given by experience and the individual psyche. Julie Sgarzi (2009) succinctly summarizes: 

We have ceremonies and sacred rites for those killed in battle, but unlike the Navajo people, we lack the needed rituals to contain the full impact of the experiences of these surviving warriors. In short, the modern warrior is left to confront their shadow warrior on their own, placing their experience in an individual context.  Collectively, we muse that they are the lucky ones….in our yearning for a normality that would deny the darkest shadows of combat. (p. 244)

Thus, the returning warrior is often left to “resume his or her pre-war life as quickly as possible, devoid of the ravages of combat, loss, and brutality he or she remembers all too well” (Sgarzi, 2009, p. 244)

In the end, moral injury isn’t just the problem of the person going through it. It’s a shared responsibility within our community because we all play a role in how events unfold. We sent people to war, provided
them with training, and offered our prayers. So, it’s our responsibility to help them heal when they return home.

Read about one community’s approach here:

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