Moral Injury

Moral Injury  A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce and Katharine Canfield, Worship Assistant

This service was developed by me in collaboration with Katharine Canfield, one of the Worship Assistants.

Though this service on Moral Injury is inspired by the fact that we as a nation are recognizing Veteran’s Day and that some other nations are recognizing Armistice Day, the day that ended World War I in 1918, there is no intent to say that all soldiers suffer from moral injury or that only soldiers suffer from moral injury.  This is not about stereotyping anyone.

However, just as people in war zones are at high risk for physical injury and for emotional injury, so people in war zones are at high risk for moral injury and our failure to recognize this fails to serve those individuals who suffer from it.

If Katharine and I have a point about soldiers here, it is that we owe our veteran’s much more than we are giving them.

Neither Katharine nor I have ever been in the military or in combat.  We will be using information gathered from other sources and that will include the words of soldiers.

The quotations come from several different places, we will only be citing some of them in the service so as not to disrupt the flow.

What is Moral Injury?


From the web site of Brite Divinity School:

“Near the end of 2009, Veterans Affairs clinicians offered this definition of moral injury:
“’Moral injury is perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. This may entail participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others, as well as engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code. Although there has been some research on the consequences of unnecessary acts of violence in war zones, the lasting impact of morally injurious experience in war remains chiefly unaddressed.’”


Moral injury is different from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD can occur after terrible natural disasters, such as the typhoon which hit the Philippines just a few days ago.  That can challenge a person’s sacred canopy—their explanation of the universe and of their understanding of God, and can have lasting effects.  And those effects can be devastating to the life of the individual.  The trauma of the experience can change how people respond to the world.

But that is not about witnessing or engaging in acts which violate one’s conscience.  So in and of itself, it does not cause moral injury.  Moral injury can be a follow-on to this if people then engage in or witness acts of desperation that violate their moral code.

The response of some of us will be one of personal responsibility: soldiers should never do anything that violates morality, at least the morality of war; after all, the military allows for refusal to engage in immoral acts.  So if they participate in or allow immoral acts they should feel responsible and be held accountable.

Others of us will be more situational in our approach.  War is terrible, awful things happen and people should not be blamed for what happens in war.

But how does it happen that people do fall into violations of their standards, violations either of commission or of omission?


Tyler Boudreau, a 12-year veteran of the Marine Corps who commanded an infantry company in Iraq, wrote the memoir Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine. (Described on Amazon: “…He trained and committed himself physically and intellectually to the military life. Then his intense devotion began to disintegrate, bit by bit, during his final mission in Iraq. After returning home, he discovered a turmoil developing in his mind, estranging him from his loved ones and the bill of goods he eagerly purchased as a marine officer.”

In retrospect, Tyler says:  “…You didn’t really have the ability to concern yourself too much with moral obligation. It’s more about the mission. And upon my return here in the States, and now that I have a young child and – you start to look at life in a bit of a different way, and this is whenever you first see what could be this moral injury.”

“You get in a situation where you feel you have to get things done. You have to survive, or you have to accomplish the mission… If soldiers start to feel a struggle between their personal morality and the mission, what that reflects is the larger operation that the society, the country has put them in.”


I believe strongly in the social context approach; that is to say, I believe that people will respond to the circumstances they are in—including soldiers who are trained to take orders and who find themselves in conditions where their lives are endangered and where killing others is expected.

When people are trained to kill, and especially in those times when the enemy is difficult to distinguish from the civilian population, we should not be surprised if acts of immorality take place.

But it is not only intentional acts that result in moral injury.  It is also what we might call accidental actions or things that happen over which we ourselves have no control.


Timothy Kudo, a former Marine captain, describes an incident in Afghanistan in 2011 that he thinks about every day. One morning, two men in a motorcycle approached his troop, who had recently been fired upon and warned the men to go away. The men on the motorcycle continued to approach, and the soldiers took fire, killing the two men instantly. When the soldiers approached the motorcycle, they realized the men on the motorcycle were civilians and that the men were likely just trying to get to their home, which they learned later was just behind the troop. They watched as a family rushed out of the building, their home, men and women – women who in public always wear burqas – but who in that horrific moment ran outside with their faces uncovered. Men and women, all together, ran outside to collect the bodies in order to have a Muslim burial before the sun went down.


Mike, another veteran from Hawaii… describes a car bomb incident, after which he had to retrieve and try to match body parts with corpses.

“That moral compass changes, and it changes at that point when you go through sensory overload, when you stack body parts, when you try to match one with the other, when you deal with concussion blasts and other issues. There’s a darkness that descends. It’s almost as if you lose heart and faith in humanity itself, and it’s – it’s horrific once you come to that realization. It’s a long road back.”

Mike referred to “a darkness that descends”, and that darkness can take many forms.

What must it do to one’s sense of humanity, of the nature of humanity and of self to witness such things?


Department of Veterans Affairs medical doctor and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Shay was quoted in an article entitled “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce” as saying:

‘It’s titanic pain that these men live with. They don’t feel that they can get that across, in part because they feel they deserve it, and in part because they don’t feel people will understand it.’

“‘Despair, this word that’s so hard to get our arms around,’ he said. ‘It’s despair that rips people apart [who] feel they’ve become irredeemable.’

The article in which Dr. Shay is quoted was about a veteran who killed himself out of guilt.  Those who suffer from moral injury are at high risk for self-destructive acts.

Moral injury can happen retrospectively as well.

For example  the soldier who now looks at his child and the magnitude of what he or she saw years before strikes home; or a former gang member who now sees things differently, the member of a mob that attacked someone out of fear or hate and later has begun to recognize the meaning of their actions.


Most of us share in moral injury.

Katharine: “While the term seems to only be equated with war and life probably doesn’t get much worse than this, we can also think about the moral injuries we sustain in a quieter way by witnessing, participating in, and overlooking certain unconscionable realities. I, for one, have never been able to reconcile the fact that I eat meat – and, in doing so, support an industry that generates a vastly dimished quality of life and death for millions if not billions of other creatures on this planet. At the same time, I fully believe in the interdependent web of life we avow as Unitarian-Universalists.


A police officer who has killed someone, or who has witnessed others–whether other police officers or other people–engaging in violations of basic human codes of conduct, can also suffer moral injury.

But the term also may apply to anyone who has been in a circumstance where they violate the depths of their own moral code.  Someone who would never kill but finds themselves in a circumstance where it is–or is only believed to be–“required”.

We also share in it when we send people to war and put them in circumstances where they will suffer from moral injury; and we share in the responsibility for any actions done by people whom we put in that circumstance.

Recent wars have been too easy for many of us because our soldiers are not people we know.  We send off the same small number of people over and over again, and we go about our lives nearly oblivious to the fact that war is taking place.

But we are responsible for sending them to war and we are responsible for what our troops do and for what happens to them.

We have a responsibility to those who suffer it directly, who have injuries whether physical, emotional or moral.

How do we fulfill those responsibilities?

The good news is that this can be done.

Ensuring that veterans are able to share their stories with others like themselves is hugely important.

Often the first step is when people can share with others like themselves, as in 12 step programs; but in the long run people will be better off if they are able to share with others as well.  With moral injury we—you and I–need to be open to listening without judgment.

That begins with being open to sharing our own hurts and pains.

Katharine: Healing comes from telling your story, from being heard by someone who doesn’t minimize the experience and who can help us see our way to the light.

Timothy Kudo said:

“I think this is not something that I’m ever going to reconcile personally. And a lot of people have directed me to faith, as an answer to thins. And I believe that, in many ways, that in the reality of our world right now, that the people I’ve killed, they can’t come back, and they can’t forgive me. And maybe their families could, but they probably won’t. And I can’t forgive myself because that’s kind of a false platitude. The harm wasn’t done to me; it was done to these other people. And I do believe that in some time, maybe after this life, that there is a possibility for that. And that’s the essential nature of faith, to me. But that’s the only real option for this. And so you just keep pushing, and you try and make it the best for the rest of your life. And I think you also realize that despite what you’ve done, you’re more than your worst action. And so realizing that on a day-to-day basis, too, is an incredible part of moving forward and trying to create good in the world.”


Faith also teaches many of us that the Divine is loving and forgiving, that we can share our hurts with the one who is all-knowing and all merciful and can find comfort there.

The God of our Universalist heritage loves us unconditionally, and accepts us despite, and maybe because of, all of our failings.

Even without full healing, those suffering from moral injury, including ourselves, can begin to move forward in a positive way when we begin to share our stories with other human beings or with our own higher power.  There is still much room for us to bring goodness and light to the world in whatever way we can. In the words of today’s reading “May we have peace with who we have been—evil and good, foolish and wise, weak and strong.” May that be true for all of us.