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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or “Moral Injury”?


“My God, what have we done?” combat soldiers sometimes gasp as they see those they or comrades just killed, especially when they include innocent children, women, and other civilians.

“We knew that we killed them/…the terrified mother/ clutching terrified child,” writes former Lieutenant Michael Parmeley in his poem “Meditation on Being a Baby Killer.” In l968, Lt. Parmeley led a combat platoon in the American War on Vietnam. He receives benefits for what is clinically described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“My gunner…started to cry,” Parmeley writes. “There’s a myth of recovery,/ that you put it behind you/…but memories aren’t like that/…I know that we killed them.”

Parmeley and I have participated in the Veterans’ Writing Group for twenty years. We attend regular meetings, break silences, tell our stories in a healing context, and listen without judgment. His poem appears in our book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” (www.vowvop.org) edited by our writing teacher, award-winning author, and former University of California Berkeley professor Maxine Hong Kingston.

Would the best description of what Parmeley has be a “disorder?” Or might other words be more accurate?

“Moral injury” is a relatively new term to refer to what veterans and others experience, especially those who saw combat or violence. Other words that have been used include hidden war wounds, shell shock, battle fatigue, and soldier’s heart.

“Moral injury” places the cause on war itself. A disorder implies that something is permanently wrong, whereas the word “injury” suggests that healing is possible. It also indicates that the problem was created by an outside force, rather than a mental illness or weakness from within.

“Every generation gives war trauma a different name,” explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at our last vets’ meeting. “Moral injury, the latest term, de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, and are not the same, troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core.”

Chung later added, “That we vets suffer moral injury, despite the tremendous suffering and anguish it brings, is actually a validation of our humanity. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.”

The ruthless, recent murder of elementary students and teachers in Connecticut re-stimulates my grief about the deaths of children in wars. I have cried for hours about the loss of life in Newtown and what it says about us as Americans. The weapons used by the Connecticut killer were military weapons. His killing is connected to the ongoing murders by Americans in Afghanistan.

Parmeley concludes his poem as follows; “A Mother and child,/ alone in a bunker,/ a war passing over,/ right now as I speak.” Those words, which were written decades ago, remain true today—“a war passing over”–this time in Afghanistan.

What are we teaching our children? As the old sayings go, what goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, and the chickens come home to roost. The wars that we have trained people for may be coming home to the United States in more deadly ways.

I was also a young officer in the U.S. Army during the same years as my vet buddy Parmeley. However, fortunately, I never made it to Vietnam. But I was raised in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and lived in Chile during “the other 9/11”–Sept. 11, l973. I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I have been treated by psychiatrists, counselors, and at vets centers.

But what has helped me most has been the support by vets and our allies to push through silence, shame, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness to speak and write about my condition.

“Sound Shy” entitles my essay in our book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.” I suffer from sound trauma, after being raised on loud Air Force bases around the world where my family was stationed. Even today, decades later, certain sounds, such as weapon-like leaf blowers, can trigger my sound trauma and bring back the kinds of nightmarish “memories” about which Parmeley writes.

Much of my behavior is “sound-avoidant,” seeking quietness. So I live and work on an organic farm, away from the concentration of people, closer to plants, animals, and the elements. I engage in what I have written about as agro-therapy—farms as healing places.

After leaving the military, I moved to Chile, where thousands of young people from around the world gathered to participate in the “democratic revolution” of Pres. Salvador Allende. Then Gen. Augusto Pinochet, supported by the U.S. government, toppled Dr. Allende. Among those tortured and executed was my good friend Frank Teruggi.

I survived, and still live, nearly forty years later. But I bear what is described as “survivor’s guilt” from that experience. Rationally, I know that it was not my fault that Frank was tortured and executed. But why him and not me? I still hear Frank crying out, inside.

In 2006, I received a summons from an attorney to appear before a judge in Chile investigating Frank’s case. I went and testified. I also visited some of the torture centers. Though now transformed into peace parks, I could still feel the cries of those tortured. Is that really a disorder? Or does it indicate that humans have a natural kinship to other sentient beings and can sense their pain?

My Post-Traumatic Stress was triggered in Chile. But the term disorder does not seem accurate. I felt a kinship with the suffering of those tortured. I received what would be better described as a “moral injury,” dating back to being raised in a military family, having served in the military, and then experiencing the loss of a buddy in my mid-twenties.

Such injuries leave a scar and do not disappear easily. The nervous system is re-wired and the physiology of the brain is altered, as a way to cope with them. They can lie dormant and then be re-stimulated by present-time wounds, such as one that I recently received. I was rejected to teach a section of a Leadership course at Sonoma State University, which I had successfully taught for three years. A person replacing me had never taught before or even been educated to teach.

So I am trying to tell my story and write my way out of having these sleepless nights and nightmares again.

Having “moral injury” can sensitize one, making a person hyper-vigilant. Yet others become de-sensitized to moral injury, the way they become de-sensitized to violence.

What I feel in my body at this moment in America history is that the killing of so many young innocent children and their teachers at Sandy Hook School, and the continuing American War in Afghanistan, are dangerous signs for our future. The worst may be yet to come. It’s time to wake up and focus our attention more on the mounting problems our violence bring us here, rather than deploy so many resources abroad.

It is not only vets who return from war with “moral injury.” Since at least the American War in Vietnam, the U.S. has been on a steady moral decline. Each time it invades another country, most recently Iraq and Afghanistan, it deepens our national “moral injury.” What might be next? Iran? Pakistan? More children here?

Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has contributed to two-dozen books, and continues the organic farming that he has done for the last 20 years. He can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.


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