Returning home, "I had questions no one could answer," said Doug Bagby.
An Army deployment as part of Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s left him wrestling with one concept in particular: "Forgiveness," he said.
"I grew up going to church," Bagby said. But back in civilian life, it wasn't the same. "I wasn't getting the sermon," Bagby recalled.
For Bagby, it took years to reconcile the Ten Commandments' "Thou shalt not kill" with his wartime experience. Eventually, a Bible study session helped him down the road to finding inner peace, he said.
Now, researchers and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have begun to pay more attention to the concept of such "moral injury" in veterans of war.
On Sept. 5, a free daylong workshop will provide faith leaders and congregation members information on how to help veterans. The event, supported by a VA grant, will take place at Asbury United Methodist Church and is also sponsored by the Community Service Council.
The VA's recognition of moral injury dates to around 2009, said Rita Brock, a founding co-director of the Soul Repair Center based at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
Moral injury is different than post-traumatic stress disorder, Brock said. She explained that PTSD can involve reliving an event, for example; experts explain it as a severe anxiety accompanied by uncontrollable thoughts.
But moral injury instead involves "remembering something rather than reliving it," she said. The two can be related, she said. For example, if treatment is effective for PTSD, "then the moral questions emerge," said Brock, who came to Tulsa in May to help lead a workshop on moral injury at Phillips Theological Seminary.
In the military, certain combat accomplishments are lauded. But upon returning home, "you may wind up thinking differently about your military experience," she said. "You may end up wondering, what kind of person am I that I could do those things?"
Such moral questions emerge from a variety of experiences, researchers have noted. Betrayal, in the form of leadership failures, or the mistreatment of enemy combatants and acts of revenge can lead to questioning, for example.
The workshop "is an attempt to help the faith community in Tulsa respond to the moral injuries of those who, in particular, have served in Afghanistan, in Iraq, but certainly it will carry over to Vietnam vets and others," said Jim Lyall, associate director with the Community Service Council.
Forrest Kirk, chief chaplain at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, said the idea is that faith leaders or church members can be something like a "first responder" to returning soldiers struggling upon their return.
For veterans, "I think that's what they need, truthfully," said Ken McCreary, Sr.
Both McCreary and Bagby spoke while at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 577, where fellowship can help those struggling to come to terms with their time in the military. "Patience and understanding" should be the key to any effort to help veterans, McCreary said, as they noted that it's important for soldiers to have such help accessible when they need it.
McCreary brought up the alarming suicide numbers for both veterans and those in active duty. A VA report released this year cautioned against drawing conclusions about trends, but it estimated that out of all suicides in Oklahoma, more than one in five involved a veteran. Out of the state's entire population, about one in 10 are veterans. So far, the reasons for a recent surge in suicides among active duty soldiers have yet to be clearly identified.
Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of the American Soldier, praised the efforts to recognize moral injury.
His book included interviews with troops in Iraq about their faith. At the time his book was published, in 2005, a workshop like the Tulsa training would have been very unlikely to receive sponsorship from the VA, he said, though he said he visits with chaplains frequently and that the agency has become more attuned to these sorts of needs.
Wartime doesn't automatically mean a loss of faith for soldiers, but "what they do is, they have to try it on, they have to apply it in different ways," Mansfield said. Faith takes on different meanings for combat veterans than others who have not seen battle, he said.
Mansfield, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, stressed the importance of having a long-term approach towards the needs of a returning soldier.
"American culture as a whole, and much of the church, is better at the one big event," Mansfield said. But it's just being there as a friend over a long period of time that may be more valuable than a few therapy sessions, he said.
Kirk said he recently learned of a soldier who has just begun to seek counseling related to an intense hand-to-hand combat experience in Vietnam.
Recently retired, "he's in kind of a like a reflecting mode, and he's feeling guilty about killing the guy," Kirk said.
Brock, who comes from a military family, said returning veterans also must deal with the loss of a clearly defined identity and often substantial changes in their family.
Clinicians may not have the training to respond, Brock said. Veterans benefit from "moral authorities who will just listen, not make judgments, but just listen."
And some veterans may be angry. "I think Christian communities are profoundly afraid of anger and conflict," said Brock, who identified herself as a Christian. But sometimes that anger is justifiable, she noted.
"I tend to use the word recovery rather than healing," Brock said. "You never forget what happened to you in war."
And when it comes to helping with that recovery, "I really believe this is a civilian responsibility for all of us," she said.
For more information or to register for the free Sept. 5 workshop, Restoring the Soul from War: A Call to America's Faith Communities, call 918-699-4292.
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