Parliament of the World’s Religions: Spiritual, emotional care for veterans is needed after ‘moral injury’

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Veterans gathered to discuss the symptoms of moral injury and ways to help returning soldiers cope with its side effects at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Penny Phillips, a chaplain with the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, gives advice on how to help veterans facing moral injury after her presentation at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions. (Cassidy Hansen)

“Moral injury disrupts (the) relationship with self when (the) inner moral core is doubted,” said Penny Phillips, a chaplain with the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital who has worked with veterans for more than 20 years.

She described moral injury as shame from actions taken while in the military that veterans — upon returning home — characterize as transgressions of their personal morals. Phillips explained that for most veterans, events of perceived transgression occurred under the direction of a legitimate authority figure in a high-stakes situation.

Moral Injury is also independent of post-traumatic stress, Phillips said; a veteran can display aspects of both conditions, or only exhibit one of the conditions.

Phillips also explained that the inner conflict that comes from what veterans perceive as being morally wrong based on their family upbringing, and what could be perceived as morally correct among their military brothers and sisters.

“This is their life, this is their passion,” Phillips said.

Veterans begin to doubt their moral goodness, because they were brought up on principles including, “thou shalt not kill,” and prohibitions against violence, but they may have broken these commitments in battle, Phillips said.

She also explained how some veterans have a difficult time readjusting to their lived religious faith, because they feel that they will be judged for their actions if anyone has knowledge of their work in the military and that they are in need of spiritual forgiveness for these actions.

Potential outward symptoms of moral injury include substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, depression, anger and family conflict.

Phillips also described how it is impossible to help a veteran until he or she is ready to talk, and that each veteran is different in the assistance they need in finding relief from moral injury.

“When you’ve met one veteran, you’ve met one veteran,” Phillips said, explaining that if you were to put all Vietnam veterans  together in one room, they wouldn’t necessarily get along.

She said religious and spiritual leaders need to be prepared with a diversity of tactics when talking to veterans who have moral injury. Such leaders must  listen actively to veterans and be willing to spend time and energy with them as they talk about their life experiences.

“Be willing to live with ambiguity, and have comfort with discomfort,” said Phillips, describing how veterans will stop sharing their stories if they sense that the person they are talking with is uncomfortable.

Phillips also encouraged caregivers to be prepared with other helpful resources, noting that the best care given to veterans is collaborative care.

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