Published January 11, 2013
Tending to Veterans’ Afflictions of the Soul
FORT WORTH — On a drizzly Saturday afternoon in September 2005, the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock awaited her instructions at a vast Washington rally against the Iraq war. The protest march, numbering more than 100,000, was the latest and among the largest events in her nearly 40 years of pacifist activism.
When an organizer placed Ms. Brock near the end of the procession, though, something instantly felt wrong. Around her she noticed many other clergy members, as well as war veterans and Gold Star Mothers. She could not rid herself of the sensation that people like her were outsiders even to the movement they supported.
“When you said you were a Christian, they thought you were a Jerry Falwell person,” Ms. Brock, 62, recalled. “I don’t think I ever said I was the daughter of a veteran. It was something I tried to forget from my life. It didn’t fit anywhere.”
That moment of painful clarity redirected Ms. Brock’s life and ministry. She has devoted the years since then to tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called “moral injury.” In her current position at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, she has begun the first program in the nation to develop a treatment that she terms “soul repair.”
Moral injury might best be defined as an affliction of the soul, as distinct from a specific mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder. It arises, to speak in a very broad way, from the way a combatant’s actions in war seem to violate and thus undermine the most deeply held moral beliefs.
Ms. Brock did not formulate the concept of moral injury, which is attributed to the clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay. In books like “Achilles in Vietnam,” Dr. Shay has traced moral injury back as far as the Trojan War. But for Ms. Brock and her colleagues, the kind of counterinsurgency wars America has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan has left soldiers uniquely vulnerable to moral injury.
“There’s no good choice,” she said. “If you’re looking at a kid on the side of the road with something in his hand, if it’s a grenade and he throws it and kills someone in your unit, you’ve failed your comrade. But if it’s a rock, you’ve just shot a kid with a rock.
“If you’re praying that your company gets out or that your best friend isn’t shot, and it doesn’t turn out that way, it can collapse your whole moral system. It feels like God abandoned you.”
Her description closely matched that of Michael Yandell, 28, a student at the Brite seminary who worked on a bomb disposal team during the Iraq war. “Most deeply, it’s a loss of confidence in one’s own ability to make a moral judgment with any certainty,” he said. “It’s not that you lose your ability to tell right from wrong, but things don’t seem so clear any more. For me, it’s whether or not what I did, did any good.”
Ms. Brock’s affinity for veterans, and her knowledge of their suffering, has long, deep roots. Her father, Roy Brock, was taken prisoner during World War II and underwent electroshock treatments after liberation for his psychological distress. He later served two tours in Vietnam as a medic, enduring the deaths not only of countless soldiers but the local translator he had befriended.
Still, the military father and his hippie daughter argued bitterly after his return home in 1969, and Mr. Brock died seven years later with the two of them still unreconciled. Only afterward did Ms. Brock learn about the death of the translator, which helped explain her father’s palpable torment.
The personal and the pastoral, then, both inform Ms. Brock’s work. She writes about her father in her recent book “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War.” Her co-author, Gabriella Lettini, is a theologian whose extended family includes veterans emotionally damaged by wartime experience. In the Soul Repair Center, Ms. Brock collaborates with the Rev. Herman Keizer Jr., who was an Army chaplain for 40 years.
Over the past three years, Ms. Brock and Ms. Lettini have spoken about moral injury and soul repair at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting and at denominational gatherings of Presbyterians and Unitarian Universalists.
Now, with a $650,000 two-year grant from the Lilly Endowment and the formal support of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Soul Repair Center is beginning to teach congregational leaders how to address moral injury in veterans. The first such training session will take place in early February.
Ms. Brock’s vision of spiritual therapy takes its inspiration from models as varied as early Christian rites of communal penitence after wartime and the Navajo ritual of purification in a sweat lodge. Her goal is to resist both finger-pointing at veterans and “premature forgiveness” for the blood they have shed.
What is essential, she said, is that a community participates with the veterans, reducing the shame and isolation associated with moral injury. “The attempt to regain entry requires accepting responsibility for what we have done,” she and Ms. Lettini write in “Soul Repair,” “but doing so may cost people their lives if they have to go back alone.”
Having found her mission among warriors, Ms. Brock has moved away from the pacifism that once defined her belief system — not because she yearns any less for the dream but because the dream leaves people like her father stranded and cast out.
“I don’t envision a world where a standing army isn’t necessary,” she said. “If that is the case, then whether or not I agree with an administration and the wars it chooses to fight, I feel that as a citizen, I have a responsibility to restore the people who’ve fought, to return them to our communities. It’s nothing wrong with them individually. It’s what we owe them as a society.”