Soul Repair: a Social Practice of Love

(I preached this sermon for Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 26th 2013.  Other than where indicated, my source for this sermon was Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini.)

Shortly after the end of World War II, United States Army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall published a report claiming that, of the U.S. troops engaged in actual combat, a full three-quarters of them never actually fired their weapons at the enemy, even when their own lives were directly threatened.  Marshall concluded in 1947 that “the average and normally healthy individual — the man that can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. […] At a vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing.”

Marshall recommended to the Army brass who were understandably alarmed by his conclusions that they should develop new training methods to overcome their soldiers’ reluctance to killing.  In the following decades, such “reflexive fire training”, as it is known, raised the percentage of soldiers willing to fire directly at the enemy from twenty-five in World War II to more than fifty in Korea to almost ninety percent in Vietnam.  In that sense, the training program was very successful.  Some veterans, however, have noted that reflexive fire training bypassed their’ own moral decision-making processes — and did so without providing any preparation for dealing with the emotional and spiritual consequences of having killed another human being.

While there is training to prepare for war, there is no equivalent process for returning to civilian life.  In generations past, going home would be a long process; today our soldiers go from active combat to the civilian world in fewer than three days — and then only to be deployed again.

During our Ministry to Military Families potlucks, this was a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also the subject of the book Soul Repair by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, which brings together the stories of veterans who experienced what they call “moral injury”.  Different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “occurs in response to prolonged, extreme danger and is a […] reaction to danger [that] produces hormones that affect [the parts of the brain] that control responses to fear, as well as regulate emotions and connect fear to memory”, moral injury “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they can no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.  They may feel this,” Brock and Lettini explain, “even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable.”  “Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith.”  As combat-trained U.S. Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. discovered when ministering to soldiers in Vietnam, he would sometimes hear what amounted to confessions of “profound, searing shame” as well as feelings of betrayal by senior officers and the government.  “From these conversations, Herm concluded that something profound and soul endangering was the source of their suffering, not just ‘shell shock’ or what was later called PTSD.”

Let me back up and saying something about why I’m preaching on this topic.

Two years ago today, this pulpit was filled by Pat Owen, who is herself a twenty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She is currently Director of Membership for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond as well as a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  Pat is amply qualified, then, to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, and in her sermon she specifically charged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  As Pat said, with so many military facilities in this part of Virginia, not to mention the shipyards, “this congregation finds itself in the perfect position to create an exemplary program connecting with service members.”

We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to begin figuring out how to do that.  One of the first things we did was bring together a number of veterans, active duty personnel and military spouses who are members of the Fellowship, to ask them what they need.  A safe place to share stories and memories and experiences with others who would understand was one of the needs that was expressed, and so we began a series of regular potlucks to try to meet that need.  Something else that was mentioned was being better understood by members of the congregation who have no military experience, so last Veterans Day I invited some of our members to speak to us on what it means to be an enlisted UU, what it means to be a UU military spouse, what it means to be a UU and a veteran.

Now in that Veterans Day service I mentioned a program developed by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is the three-and-a-half-thousand member “congregation without walls” that includes Unitarian Universalists who have no local church to attend as well as many UUs who are serving in the military.  At first glance, this program seemed ideal, offering a way to bring together our members both in the military and not and engaging them in mutually enlightening conversation around topics of military service, peace, war and ministry.  As we took a closer look at the program, though, we realized that it was really intended for congregations experiencing conflict around these issues, and that’s not us.  One of the things I very quickly realized about this Fellowship is that while it certainly includes people holding widely differing opinions on matters of war and peace, there is a deep atmosphere of respect and appreciation and love that makes this, unlike some Unitarian Universalist congregations, a place where all of us can be proud of our military personnel and veterans and their spouses and families, where we can thank them for their service.  And it’s not hard to see how much these military families add by being here, so it’s always sad to see them go as and when they are transferred to other posts elsewhere in the country.

The question remains, then, as to how we can respond to Pat Owen’s charge “to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  There’s no one way, of course, but I was struck by something that came up at that first meeting — and came up again and again at the subsequent potlucks — namely the fact that the move from active duty to veteran — from the structure and discipline of military life to the uncertainty and ambiguity of civilian life — can be one of the hardest transitions anyone is ever expected to make in their life.  It’s tough for those of us who have never served in the military to understand that, but journalist Sebastian Junger provides one insight we can appreciate.  He writes, “The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade — certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else — is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don’t think it can be explained by ‘army training’ or any kind of suicidal impulse.  I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way.  Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting.  That may be one reason,” Junger concludes, that “combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.”

So how does the U.S. Army, for instance, help prepare its personnel for going home?  Well, here’s one comment on a debriefing as experienced by Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía: “A twenty-minute session centering on the admonition Don’t commit suicide doesn’t do much to ease the anguish of a soldier dealing with the horror, for instance, of having killed a child, just as a group session with a combat stress team isn’t much help if your life is at risk twenty-four hours a day.”

And how well do such debriefings work?  Consider the fact that veterans make up about seven percent of the U.S. population but represent twenty percent of all suicides.  The Veterans Administration estimates, in fact, that veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes.  And between 2005 and 2007 alone, the suicide rate among veterans under thirty increased by more than a quarter.  Veterans are also disproportionately divorced, unemployed, homeless and imprisoned.

Now while this is known to VA researchers, getting to VA services and benefits is another matter.  Brock and Lettini open their book by telling some of the story of Clay Warren Hunt, the “twenty-eight-year-old former marine corporal who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  In 2009 he was “a model to other veterans of a successful return home”, married, taking college courses, advocating for veterans’ rights and working in disaster relief.  In 2010 “the VA lost his benefit application papers and [his] payments were delayed for ten months.  Frustrated, he lobbied Congress on behalf of veteran’s benefits:  ‘You fight for your country,” he said, “then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised.’”  Then “his marriage ended, he left school, [and he] went into treatment for depression”.  In 2011 Clay killed himself.  “Over a thousand people attended his funeral.”

Clay’s experience with the VA is far from unique.  Pamela Lightsey spent time in the military, worked in civil service positions associated with her husband’s continued career in the military, and her son, Dweylon, joined the Army and was posted to Iraq.  Eight years after coming home, Dweylon had still not received the help he needed, and Pamela worries about him as only a mother can.  “What he has achieved at home,” she explains, “is especially miraculous in the face of VA services that are not only just awful but also require veterans to have to fight their own government for the disability support or financial compensation owed them from serving in war.  It can take many years going back and forth filing and responding to documents for disability pay. Some even have to hire an attorney to help them back their way through all the red tape.”

I’ve heard from some of our own members here about the problems with the Veterans Administration, particularly our local VA Medical Center in Hampton.  It’s even been a recurring segment on The Daily Show, which is not known for taking current events entirely seriously but has been reporting on the horrendous backlog of benefits applications at the VA, to the extent that the weight of hundreds of thousands of paper claim forms is buckling the floors of the building where they are waiting to be processed.

Unfortunately, even if the VA were able to process the applications in a timely manner, it is “not prepared to help [those] in emotional pain and deep anguish.”  As discovered by U.S. Marine veteran Mac Bica, “about all the help the VA offered [him upon his return from Vietnam] was some group therapy and heavy medication like Thorazine to ease depression and anxiety.”  Recognizing that he could not simply put the war behind him, as some well-meaning friends advised him, Mac found himself challenging “modern therapeutic approaches to the suffering of veterans as afflictions of stress and trauma, clustered under the umbrella of PTSD[, approaches that deem] moral and spiritual considerations irrelevant, or even a hindrance to restoring psychological health.”  As Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía explains it, “PTSD and moral injury are two different hidden wounds of war.”  “PTSD is a breach of trust with the world” — he found he could no longer trust roads not to explode nor trust children not to throw grenades at him.  “Moral injury, however, is the violation of a moral agreement he had with his own internal world, his moral identity.  Camilo broke that inner agreement by violating his most deeply held moral beliefs”,  killing unarmed civilians and allowing prisoners of war to be tortured.  The fact that he did those things under orders is of little comfort.

Now some of you may know that the Army has attempted to address the impacts of combat on its soldiers’ health and well-being by instituting a program called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”.  Primarily directed at helping its soldiers to be resilient — in other words, to be able to “bounce back” after trauma and stress — the CSF program identifies five dimensions of resilience, which are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual.  The spiritual dimension of fitness is defined as “strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength”, which makes it little more than an “everything else not included above” category.  Furthermore, the spiritual fitness part of the program has come under criticism as a back-door means to promote Evangelical Christianity, with non-Christians and particularly atheists experiencing discrimination.  And as Brock and Lettini note, the Army’s definition of “spiritual [fitness] fails to contain any moral content or to acknowledge the basic existence of moral conscience, which is the key to distinguishing a healthy person from a sociopath.”  The irony, in fact, is that the CSF program seems to promote a spirituality that would rule out empathy and ethical concerns, meaning that veterans with moral injury are actually stigmatized as being spiritually unfit.

What is to be done about all of this?  Well, there’s what might be called the “top down” approach, but that’s problematic.  Iraq veteran Kevin Benderman originally chose a career in the Army in order to defend his country, but, horrified by what he had already witnessed, he refused to redeploy as a way to uphold “the honor and integrity of military service, which taught him to respect the truth.”  His application for Conscientious Objector status was supported by a chaplain but was eventually denied, and he was court-martialed, demoted and sentenced to fifteen months in a military prison.  Studying the politics — and the economics — of war, “Kevin believes that ‘protest demonstrations to stop wars are useless.  People are still driven by their fears to believe propaganda rather than to challenge the lies that send people to war.”  Rather, the civilian public needs to “demand justice for those who fought and those who died.”  “Until the public demands an accounting, Kevin is certain that the country’s leaders, trusting in military power, mesmerized by weapons systems, and oblivious to the cost of war on ordinary people, will fail to use intelligence, moral reasoning and common sense in dealing with international problems.”

But there’s also a “bottom up” approach.

My reading this morning came from Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, a work of fiction that described a nonetheless real Navajo practice known as “the Enemy Way”, an extensive, difficult process to purge the harmful effects of war, fatal accidents and other encounters with death from the soul.  VA hospitals in the Southwest even promote ceremonies such as the Enemy Way to help Native American veterans, so there’s some hope on that front.  Along the same lines, “Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who ‘shed human blood’ to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized” and required them to spend at least a year re-developing their faith.

Whether we consider the extinct practices of primitive Christianity or the continuing practices of the Navajo Nation, the work of soul repair is a deliberate, arduous tasks.  As Brock and Lettini note, “We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others.  If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest, most important dimension of our shared humanity.  In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of everyone one of us to send any one of us to war.”  I think this is getting at what Pat Owen meant when she challenged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.

Now Soul Repair is not a “how to” manual.  There is, unfortunately, no program in here that we can simply adapt and adopt.  This is new territory — one barely appreciated by the Veterans Administration and still essentially denied by the military hierarchy and the government.  The Soul Repair Center, of which Rita Nakashima Brock is co-director, at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth is working on programs and materials for congregations, theological schools and community organizations that want to support the recovery of veterans and others from moral injury, but it’s still very new.

But I really dislike, if I can at all help it, ending a sermon by having described a problem and yet offering nothing about what we, as a congregation, might do about it.  To even frame the topic of moral injury in terms of the phrase “soul repair” is to imply that there’s a significant spiritual dimension to it, and that ought to align it with the bread-and-butter of every religious organization.

More veterans look for help from ministers than from psychiatrists, and it’s no accident that many of the veterans whose stories are told in Brock and Lettini’s book sought to deepen their faith as a way to repair their own souls, some becoming ministers.  Moreover, there’s clearly an important rôle for non-Christian faith communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist congregations when it comes to pagans, humanists, atheists and so on who feel excluded by the military’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity when it comes to matters of spiritual fitness.

For example, Army veteran and chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. wants religious communities to create, in his words, “a place of grace” that supports recovery from moral injury.  When few “social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives others better than” — no, not churches — but the military, then “people of faith [are called] to wade into the complex moral questions of war and social responsibility and discern the meaning of spiritual life after war [so that we] can engage the conversations that matter deeply and, in doing so, save lives.”

So what would characterize “a place of grace”?  What is needed to support soul repair?  Brock and Lettini do describe a few requirements, and they fit right into the mission of any decent church.  First, there needs to be friendship.  “Friends,” they explain, “probe and question and challenge each other to make each other more complete.”  “With friends, we discuss intimate questions, hold each other’s confidences, learn to tolerate disagreements, support each other through life’s struggles and joys, and explore the profound questions of life’s meaning.”

Second, “conversations about moral injury require deep listening.  In being open,” they write, “we must be willing to take in what we hear as part of ourselves, to be moved, even by what is difficult or painful to hear, and to struggle to understand profound questions about moral conscience.”  “Deep listening requires us to set our own needs aside and to offer, simply, respect.”

Third and fourth, “recovering from moral injury also requires a renewed sense of life purpose and service.  A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing,” they argue.  “Whatever we think of a war, the crucial responsibility is to accompany the journey home of those who return and remind [ourselves] that, as a society, we don’t just leave wars [or our warriors] behind.”

First, friendship.  Second, deep listening.  Third, life purpose.  Fourth, service.  We enjoy and promote those here, don’t we?

Time and again I hear in the testimonials that our own members give from this pulpit how much they value the friends they have made here.  And many of our members enjoy the opportunities offered by Fellowship Circles to deepen existing friendships and make new friends through the practice of deep listening.  And if there’s anywhere that we can talk about life’s purpose and the values claimed and manifested by our society, it’s in church.  And as part of being people of faith, we encourage one another to engage in service, whether it’s within the congregation by being an RE teacher or by offering hospitality or beyond our walls by volunteering with LINK or St. Paul’s.  We may not have them perfectly, but all of the aspirations and skills we need are already here, gathered up in our Fellowship’s mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, bound together in our Unitarian Universalist covenant to walk together in the ways of love.

Addressing moral injury is a religious task and as a religious community we have a vital role to play in helping even those who may not consider themselves religious to find healthy ways to express themselves and engage in the arduous work of soul repair.  There’s important outreach we can do — that we must do — as part of a non-dogmatic faith tradition that speaks up for the rights of religious minorities and encourages the covenanted social practice of love.  For it is our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans, to military families and to everyone who seeks spiritual wholeness, who seeks to transform themselves and one another such that this world may be filled with beauty, and we the fortunate souls who walk together in it.

So may it be.

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  1. […] May 26th: “Soul Repair: A Social Practice of Love” […]

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