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Kansas City Writing Group Is Helping Veterans Heal From Moral Injury

At the VFW headquarters in Kansas City, a writing group is helping veterans heal from moral injury: a condition similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Kansas City Vet Writing team (sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council and belonging to the Moral Injury Association of America) is headed by marine veteran Nick Lopez. Since being established in 2014, the group’s worked with thousands of veterans and family members. 

The Veteran’s Readers Theater

Every year for the past four years, Lopez hosts the Veteran’s Readers Theater. “Heroism in service” was the theme of last year’s (virtual) event. Lopez began the theater with a description of the hero’s journey, involving sacrifice, “a call to adventure, a refusal to go, crossing a threshold, or battling internal and external monsters”. “Probably the biggest struggle with veterans is sharing those experiences with their loved ones”, Lopez then said. “They believe that it’s hard for other people to relate to what they’ve experienced”. The participants then took turns reading their personal stories and poems ultimately in an effort to heal from the moral injury of war.

Moral injury 

Moral injury is often associated with PTSD and the conditions (both not easily diagnosed) share many of the same symptoms, including depression, anxiety, anger, and insomnia. Moral injury occurs when an individual does something in conflict with their core moral values, resulting in significant shame or guilt. “When you look at moral injury, that’s when you’re seeing the conscience, the empathy coming forward, and that’s when the veteran would suffer from sorrow, grief, regret, shame, and the alienation as well,” said Cindy McDermott, a Navy veteran and co-founder of the Kansas City-based Moral Injury Association of America. “At the worst, it’s self-medication with alcohol or drugs”. The transition to civilian life can be challenging for veterans who often simultaneously have conditions like PTSD and moral injury. They may have also experienced military medical malpractice due to negligence of military healthcare staff, which results in pain, emotional trauma, and further medical bills. Fortunately, in this case, military defense lawyers can help veterans sue those responsible for negligence and win rightful compensation.

Crossing a moral line

Rita Nakashima Brock, Senior Vice President and Director of the Shay Moral Injury Center of Volunteers of America in Virginia offered a real-world example of moral injury: a young soldier she knew who was ordered to “shoot an Iraqi who was threatening to throw a grenade. He doesn’t remember actually shooting, but he remembers seeing this young man with a grenade in his hand and then seeing him lie in a pool of blood clearly dead,” Brock said. When the soldier checked his magazine afterward, he noticed he had fewer bullets than expected. He was suddenly convinced he’d killed the man. “He just was devastated,” Brock said. “He realized he had crossed some moral line in his life he could never get back across.”

Writing is a key step in healing from moral injury. “When they write it down, or they speak it, or they depict it, they could see it for the first time in a way that makes it something they could actually manipulate and work with,” Brock said. “And that’s the moment at which recovery is possible.