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Understanding Moral Injury

Service Member on guard with weapon

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Brian Chaney/Released

As a service member, you may encounter inner conflicts, ethical or moral challenges during deployments, special missions, or in the course of one’s duty.  You may be required to act in ways that go against your moral beliefs or witness behaviors by others that make you feel uncomfortable.1 These experiences can lead to moral injury.

This article explores the concept of moral injury, why a service member might experience it and the resources available for care and support.

What is Moral Injury?

Moral injury occurs when one experiences an act that conflicts with or violates a core moral value, or deeply held belief, and leads to an internal moral conflict. It is the betrayal of what you may feel is morally right. It might arise from your own actions or inaction, other people’s behaviors or by witnessing the suffering of others. Moral injury can occur either during or at some point after the event, and may be associated with feeling shame or guilt.1

Examples can include participation in direct or indirect actions such as:2

  • Killing or harming others
  • Witnessing death
  • Failing to prevent immoral acts of others             
  • Giving or receiving orders from authority that are against one’s moral values

Moral Injury Signs and Symptoms:

You may experience emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms after being exposed to a morally conflicting event. Responses can include:2

Emotional

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Emotional numbing
  • Feeling conflicted and questioning the meaning of life

Behavioral

Moving Forward: Ways to Seek Help

After experiencing a moral injury, it is important that service members seek help. Keeping these thoughts inside or avoiding the situation can be harmful. The sooner you receive guidance, intervention, or peer and leadership feedback, the better you can avoid the burden of shame and guilt, or feeling that your actions are unforgivable.1

Health care professionals or chaplains can help you work through different strategies to counter the feelings of shame, guilt, or feelings of pain. These strategies might include:1

  • Processing the painful elements of the experience to discover its meaning, needs and motivations
  • Developing and reclaiming a sense of personal self-worth
  • Understanding that even if a particular act is “bad” or “wrong,” it is still possible to move forward and create a life of value
  • Reclaiming good parts of yourself and accepting what you did and what you saw without having it define you
  • Creating different goals and ways to make amends can help you reconnect with your values and to feel connected with society
  • Reaching out to family and friends for positive and healing relationships  

Military chaplains support the spiritual fitness of each member assigned to their command. Chaplains are readily available to every service member at home and overseas to provide confidential counseling. While chaplains generally are not licensed counselors, they are prepared to help with various life challenges, including moral well-being. This short-term counseling is referred to as “pastoral care” and chaplains can refer service members to other counseling services for long-term counseling or therapy.4 To learn more about the role of military chaplains, read the campaign article “No Ordinary Warrior: Your Chaplain is a Frontline Resource.”

To find a chaplain near you, you can:

  • Walk to the nearest chapel and make an appointment or visit MilitaryINSTALLATIONS and look under the program/service “Chapels”
  • Contact the closest military installation and ask for help
  • Contact Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647 for help finding your unit chaplain
  • Use the Local Community Resource Finder on the National Guard Family Program website

Real Warriors, Real Strength.

If you or a loved one is wrestling with moral injury, seek help now. Contact the Psychological Health Resource Center to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants 24/7 by calling 866-966-1020, by using the Real Warriors Live Chat or by emailing resources@dcoeoutreach.org.

Additional Resources:

Sources:

1 Litz, B.T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W.P., Silva, C., & Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 29,695-706.

2 Litz, Brett and Maguen, Shira. “Moral Injury in the Context of War,” National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Last update on April 15, 2014.

3 Doyle, Megan. “Religious Community Working Together to Combat Moral Injury,” Army.mil. Published April 29, 2014.

4The Unit Chaplain: Roles and Responsibilities,” Military One Source. Last accessed on January 12, 2017.

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