[This piece is written with Gabriella Lettini and based on our book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War.]
On Memorial Day, President Barack Obama will attend an anniversary ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's a long custom for presidents to honor the nation's war dead. However, it's a sure bet that he will not honor millions of casualties of war who are not remembered--their families will never be called "Gold Star Families," even though war killed their soldiers. That's because many veterans come home alive but are so morally injured that they kill themselves because war destroyed their core moral identity and stole their will to live.
When we send men and women into the atrocity of war, they must violate the core moral values of civilian society. We usually welcome them home with a "thank you for serving" or a parade and then expect them to put the war behind them and to get on with their lives. Our society has failed, thus far however, to take responsibility for supporting moral recovery, and, hence, many who served in war die later, as its moral costs sink in.
It takes a capacity for empathy and a strong sense of moral values to make a healthy person, and it takes a profoundly brutal and morally compromising process to destroy a moral identity. In our work with veterans, we have listened to many struggle with their consciences and the devastating effects of witnessing or taking part in acts that violated their deepest moral beliefs and ethical expectations of others. For some, the suffering becomes unbearable and they can no longer cope with the most basic demands of their lives or even with life itself. These moral wounds of war are different from PTSD and remain largely unaddressed. According to an important VA article on moral injury, the long-term impact can be so "emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially" devastating that it leads to suicide.
To ignore veteran suicides as casualties of war is to abnegate our own moral responsibility for having sent them to fight. It's also a failure to heed the lessons about the costs of war to our whole society.
President Obama has declared May 28 through November 11, 2012, the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War: "I call upon Federal, State, and local officials to honor our Vietnam veterans, our fallen, our wounded, those unaccounted for, our former prisoners of war, their families, and all who served with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities."
What does it mean to honor the casualties and survivors of that war?
Some veterans challenge us to honor the dead by telling the truth about war. A week ago, in Chicago, fifty veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars discarded their medals by hurtling them at the site of the biggest NATO summit in sixty years, just as Vietnam veterans did in 1971 outside the US capitol. Alejandro Villatoro, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, opened the public peace ceremony with a vivid description of how war precipitates moral injury:
Veterans of the wars of NATO will ... tell us why they chose to return their medals to NATO. I urge you to honor them by listening to their stories. Nowhere else will you hear from so many who fought these wars about their journey from fighting a war to demanding peace. Some of us killed innocents. Some of us helped in continuing these wars from home. Some of us watched our friends die. Some of us are not here, because we took our own lives. We did not get the care promised to us by our government. All of us watched failed policies turn into bloodshed. Listen to us, hear us, and think: was any of this worth it?
One by one, these men and women who had been honored and decorated because of their bravery hurled their medals towards the NATO Summit and reclaimed their moral identities. Former combat medic Jason Hurd confessed: "I'm here to return my Global War on Terror Service Medal in solidarity with the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan. I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe." Greg Miller, who served the Army infantry in Iraq, stated
The military hands out cheap tokens like this to soldiers, servicemembers, in an attempt to fill the void where their conscience used to be once they indoctrinate it out of you. But that didn't work on me, so I'm here to return my Global War on Terrorism Medal and my National Defense Medal, because they're both lies.
Maggie Martin, a sergent who did two tours in Iraq, insisted "No amount of medals, ribbons or flags can cover the amount of human suffering caused by these wars. We don't want this garbage. We want our human rights. We want our right to heal." Michael Applegate, in the Navy from 1998 to 2006, declared "I'm returning my medal today because I want to live by my conscience rather than being a prisoner of it."
While these veterans belonged to groups such Iraq Veterans Against the War, they are not the only veterans to acknowledge moral injury and accept responsibility. Shannon P. Meehan, a retired U.S. Army captain and communications specialist at Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, also speaks of her sense of having violated deeply held moral beliefs:
By carrying the Purple Heart, whether as a lapel pin or as an image engraved on a coffee mug, I remind myself of a tragedy that I am ultimately responsible for -- a violation against humanity. When you see my Purple Heart, you see my sacrifice, but I see and feel much more. I see the people I killed, the civilians I failed to protect, and I am reminded that there will be no Purple Heart for them.
The psychological and emotional effects of combat are often referred to as the "hidden wounds of war." But given veteran rates of homelessness, unemployment, divorce, depression, incarceration, and suicide, how can such wounds really be invisible or hard to detect? Let's make Memorial Day 2012 not a National Day of Ignorance, Amnesia, and Nostalgia about war, but a day to face the truth about it and the terrible costs still being paid by those who fought. We cannot begin the arduous journey towards healing and transformation if we lack the honesty and moral courage of the veterans who were sent to fight.