I never wanted to be a veteran. I never wanted to be that old guy, sporting a camo jacket and veteran hat, who can’t stop telling war stories. But one day, after leaving the active duty Army, I realized I was one. I was that guy, to some degree, minus the jacket and hat. I carried stories of my time in the military that no one seemed to understand, least of all me. I carried a load of unresolved grief in my heart for the young people I buried, as well as symptoms of PTSD. I also carried what I’ve learned to call moral injury.
Moral injury is a term used to describe what veterans experience when they go against their deeply seated moral compass by doing things in war that hurt people or standing by without giving aid. War is a morally upside-down world, where the morals of the civilian world are no longer in force. Many veterans with moral injury feel like they aren’t good anymore, and many distance themselves from community, especially from a community that represents morality like the Church.
It was out of these experiences with war and homecoming I convened the first meeting of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship (EVF) in Austin, TX. A small group of veterans met in 2013 and prayed about what God was calling us to do for our generation of veterans. We were encouraged by Bishop Doyle’s call for missional communities to form, so we dreamed up ways to bring the healing love of Jesus to veterans.
It was encouraging to hear the term “missional communities,” from Bishop Doyle, because both of these words were a part of our experiences in the military. We went out “on mission” and it was our “community” that gave us strength for the difficult days and nights.
The veteran community is a closed community and one of the symptoms of moral injury is a lack of trust in institutions. This made our work difficult, but with time and patience the Holy Spirit brought people together and we began to experiment.
Our early experiments involved pilgrimages, group meetings about moral injury, a “tactical retreat”, and hosting a conference on moral injury at Seminary of the Southwest, in Austin. While we accomplished many of our goals in the early days, we found the real value of our work was the relationships we formed with veterans and their family members who felt that the Church and God had abandoned them.
The work continues here in Central Texas and beyond. We have had lunch meetings with formerly homeless veterans at the Community First! Village, a community of tiny homes that houses over a hundred formerly homeless persons. This is an opportunity to meet and break bread, share stories of grief and loss and a chance to pray together, asking for God’s healing presence. Later this month, we will gather for a healing service for moral injury where we will read scripture, share about moral injury, then write out our moral injuries on paper and burn them in the incense thurible. War is a physical act, and we believe that physical rituals are very effective in healing the invisible wounds of war.
After our first weeks of launching EVF, many of my PTSD and moral injury symptoms came back
with a vengeance. I had to renew my commitment to healing through the mental health system at the VA as well as the spiritual disciplines that were sustaining and healing me. I realized other leaders would have similar struggles; the Rev. Lynn Smith-Henry, an Army veteran who had been with me since the beginning and I started the Hospitallers of St. Martin. Martin of Tours is the patron saint of veterans and his story of war and moral injury is compelling. He is most famous for cutting his cape in half to clothe a poor person in the cold, so this Christian Community we formed would be devoted to what Martin was devoted to, Prayer, Hospitality, and Reconciliation.
It has been a joy to see veterans from around our nation join this community and become empowered for ministry in their local context.
Learn more about Episcopal Veterans Fellowship here.
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