Military Moral Injury Psychology Sociology

They’re Suffering Because They Also Miss What Was Good

Infantrymen1“They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.” 
— Sebastian Junger, in War

Civilians don’t often realize that the trauma of losing something good can be just as difficult as the trauma of witnessing something bad. Although Operational Stress Injuries such as PTSD are a very important concern being addressed by psychologists and psychiatrists, as a sociologist I’ve found that social reintegration can pose significant problems that are not receiving adequate attention.

One area of research I’ve focused on is the concept of ‘moral injury’. Since morality is social in nature, this idea appealed to me since it goes beyond the focus on maladaptive cognitive processes based on a fear response.  Moral injury is rooted in a shame response and can be defined by Jonathan Shay in the following statement: “Moral injury is present when there has been (a) a betrayal of “what’s right”; (b) either by a person in legitimate authority, or by one’s self…(c) in a high stakes situation.”


Although moral injury successfully expands on PTSD by addressing the experience of social isolation and trust issues, it is limited to the experience of moral transgression in combat. I argue that the experience of social isolation and loss of trust can also result from the experience of transitioning to civilian life itself. I have been been calling this experience “moral injury as a transitional trauma”. This is the traumatic loss of social integration and moral regulation provided by the military, particularly predominant among individual in units confronted with high levels of combat.

In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.

Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart. Units train together, deploy together, and should come home together. Although it is beneficial to treat individuals who suffer psychological traumas on an individual basis, we need to consider the social traumas not currently being addressed by this popular  form of treatment. Solutions may include veterans groups focused on the pursuit of a common purpose such as Team Rubicon, and Squadbay, expeditions with Canada’s True Patriot Love Organization, or peer-support groups provided by Canada’s Veterans Transition Network, and Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program.

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