The Invisible Wounds of Soldiers

The Invisible Wounds of Soldiers

According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are nearly 20 million living veterans, approximately 16.5 million of whom are veterans of combat deployments. The debilitating negative effects of combat are not simply battle fatigue, combat-related stress, and visible wounds. Soldiers must often grapple with guiltshame, resentment, and an incapacitating disorientation about the meaning and power of their actions.

Many military personnel question their moral principles, relationship with God, and their sense of self as a relational partner, parent, and community member. Such invisible wounds can last for a lifetime post-deployment. A betrayal of moral principles can be reflective of a moral injury. Moral injuries can result from committing, witnessing, or failing to stop an injustice and happen whenever fundamental moral commitments are challenged.

A moral injury is a type of trauma. Veterans, like all people, may deal with traumatic events in many different ways. Some people engage in self-care through proper diet, exercise, and sleep habits, as well as maintaining close relationships with friends and family members, establishing a strong support network, and working to develop a post-deployment career. All of these activities reflect active, interactive engagement in managing post-deployment life.

Yet not all Veterans may choose healthy ways of dealing with post-deployment stress. Many Veterans turn to substances such as alcohol and drugs, while others engage in compulsive behaviors such as drinking, sex, gambling, internet gaming, and overeating. All of these activities, when taken to the extreme, can take control of a person’s life, resulting in irreparable damage to the Veteran’s relationships, career, emotional health, and overall sense of self.

For the Veteran, compulsive behaviors may serve as a source of avoidance, as the compulsive behavior provides a way to temporarily numb the emotions associated with memories associated with deployment, and provides a distraction to directly managing the stress of returning to civilian life. Yet avoidance can also be conveyed through carefully choosing what to say to others about combat life. Many Veterans say that they do not tell friends and family members about the more traumatic sides of combat including witnessing death, crumbling loneliness, and questions about who one is as a person during combat and while at home.

So how should soldiers deal with moral injuries? Anyone experiencing a moral injury should embrace the experience as one for personal growth. This is not easy—in our society we want to be seen as strong and independent by other people. And for soldiers, adhering to the code of commitment and honor may make it difficult to reveal an invisible scar to others.

But reaching out to a trusted person who will not judge one’s experiences can help a person move beyond a moral injury. For some Veterans this can be a spouse or close friend. For other Veterans, finding a community of people with similar combat experiences through a local VFW, DAV or other local groups has been more effective. The important thing to remember is that not everyone manages a moral injury the same way, but the key is to think about the best strategies to stop avoiding and start talking about the military experience.

Jennifer A. Samp Ph.D.,Conflict Matters

Alper Yeşil