“After visiting the church, he said ‘they don’t love each other, how could they possibly love me?’”
At the Gateway for Hope: Breaking the Stigma of Moral Injury conference in Montgomery, Alabama last week, Dr. Rita Brock uttered these words to a room full of veterans, families, chaplains, clergy, and concerned citizens. She referenced a conversation with a young man after he returned home from combat, and sat in the church pew for the first time since deployment. The conference room full of attentive faces began to nod in agreement, or shake their heads in disappointment and shame. This statement was a powerful reminder to everyone that love has a place in empathy, understanding, and deep listening, particularly when it comes to the experience of combat veterans.
Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock is the director of the Soul Repair Center of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. In her co-authored book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, she and Gabriella Lettini address the experiences of veterans trained to fight in military combat. Beginning with the varying reasons a person may enlist in the military, to the experience of killing, and the inevitability of returning home to loved ones. It addresses the difficulties that these experiences hold, along with the anguish of loved ones as they attempt to interact with the person, as if nothing happened. One quote from a veteran of Iraq is particularly eye opening. He says, “war is the foyer to hell; coming home is hell.”
The conference featured many speakers, a panel of veterans expressing their individual experiences (some for the first time), workshops, exhibits, and a Theatre of War presentation and discussion. The panel of veterans provided an opportunity for women and men of different war experiences to tell their story. Each veteran expressed reflections and questions about their own place in the conflict. “Who have I become?” “What are we doing?” “Why do we still depend on war as foreign policy?” “Air Force chaplains leave alone, and come back alone.” Each one had a sorrow, a lament that they felt as they expressed the horrors they experienced in combat. In a deep listening exercise, the conference hall met each of their stories with acknowledgement through sacred silence.
The “Theatre of War” presented readings from Ajax, an ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, a general in ancient Greece. The readings depicted the horrors of a returned soldier as he struggles to understand his place in the world after war with the Trojans. In the readings, he wrestles with his own identity, the meaning of his name, and feels the only honorable thing he can do is take his own life with his sword on enemy soil. The presentation went on to express the horror and helplessness felt by his family as they watched his anguish, and found his lifeless body. Though the words and performance was powerful, it was the panel discussion, and audience reflections that really brought the story to life. Participants grappled with their own relationships to the characters. They recognized resilience and strength in their own lives as well as those around them. It provided space to discuss psychological and spiritual concerns about the ravages of war.
After two days of challenging discussions, inspiring speakers, and powerful conversations related to “bringing our troops all the way home,” I spent a significant amount of time reflecting on my experiences from the conference. While I packed my bags that evening for an early morning flight, President Obama addressed the nation regarding ISIL and its presence in Iraq and Syria. He announced “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” His plan according, to his public address, is continued airstrikes, increased “on the ground” force, increased counterterrorism efforts, and increased humanitarian aid. Military efforts, combat, and war affect all of us. It does not simply affect those who are deployed and their families.
The Wounded Warrior Soul Care Initiative has begun its journey within JustPeace, and is working with clergy and congregations to provide a safe place where people can share their experiences. Literature, story telling, art, physical movement, liturgical space adaptation, and ritual, are some of the ways in which congregations and communities can have the opportunity for conversations with those who have experienced “Moral Injury.” As the United Methodist Church and individual congregations are starting to explore their place in reaching out to veterans and caring for their needs, it is imperative to recognize the significance of our relationships with one another. Dr. Rita Brock said, “We must earn the right to hear the stories they have to tell.” If we do, maybe we will hear, “They love each other so much. Perhaps, they can love me too,” coming from anyone in our midst.