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Rituals of reconciliation help to heal moral injuries for veterans

Rituals of reconciliation help to heal moral injuries for veterans

A long read in Duke University’s Faith & Leadership blog examines ministries of reconciliation offered to veterans by the Episcopal Church. The Revd David Peters is himself a veteran, and an Episcopal priest:

From his years as an Army chaplain and his earlier experience as an enlisted Marine, Peters knew when he formed the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship that veterans would do best in a community of fellow veterans. He also knew from his theological training that veterans needed the sacramental structure of penance and reconciliation — even if their faith was destroyed.

For many soldiers who’ve been through combat, the moral universe has shifted, Peters said.

“The church is supposed to be the group that creates morality, or at least witnesses to it,” he said. “And when you think that God is the least moral being in the universe, that’s where the church has to witness to that, too.”

Part of a much broader movement in the church to minister to veterans, the fellowship is increasingly focused on what experts call “moral injury.” In the last few years, books, articles and conferences have explored the topic, and philanthropic foundations have awarded large grants to faith-based moral injury projects.

Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder — which is rooted in fear and marked by flashbacks and hypervigilance — moral injury refers to the turmoil people experience when they violate their core values, such as a prohibition against killing. In combat, morality can become distorted, and when soldiers return to civilian life, they often feel spiritually unmoored, disconnected, even suicidal.

With all the attention focused on PTSD in recent decades, mental health professionals missed the moral devastation that many soldiers endured, said the Rt. Rev. James Magness, a Vietnam War veteran, former U.S. Navy chaplain, and until recently bishop suffragan for the Episcopal Church’s Armed Forces and Federal Ministries.

“There’s another component of being in combat and experiencing combat that has little if anything to do with post-traumatic stress and has to do with … moral wounds, or moral injury,” said Magness, who has been a mentor to Peters.

“We need priests to work with these people, and spiritual leaders more so than therapists and clinicians,” he said. “Rightly so, post-traumatic stress clinicians don’t talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Read more about the role of ritual in serving veterans at Faith & Leadership.

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