A growing number of war veterans are being diagnosed with “moral injuries.”
That’s the term experts are using for the psychological “wounds” many troops suffer, from having done something - or failed to stop something - that violates their personal moral code. Like, when you’re raised to believe “thou shalt not kill,” but then you’re ordered to go shoot or torture someone, and even if you do it to save a comrade, or your own life, you can’t help thinking you’ve done something wrong.
It turns out, moral injury is common enough that the Defense Department recently approved a major new study to help identify and treat it. Experts say that’s a big deal because 1-in-5 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being diagnosed with PTSD – or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But for people with a moral injury, experts say that’s the wrong diagnosis, because where the PTSD often involves having terrifying nightmares and flashbacks of combat events, moral injuries are more about having questions of conscience, like, feeling deep shame and guilt, or feeling “responsible” for someone’s death - even if you never pulled the trigger!
The hope is that by getting more veterans to talk about it, psychologists can develop better ways to identify – and treat moral injury. So far, the most promising treatment includes trying activities that promote mental and physical wellness – like yoga. And the Marines are testing a new “psychological first aid technique,” where troops have imaginary conversations with the people they lost in battle. Psychologists say it’s because, more than anything, people with moral injuries want forgiveness.