Lesson 4: Breaking free from trauma and moral injury

Monday, June 1, 2015


To learn more about how soldiers, who have been traumatized by the brutality of war and the painful losses it brings, find their way toward healing.

Download Returning Veterans curriculum pdf.


This story is excerpted from "Healing: Can we treat moral wounds?"1, which describes the San Diego Naval Medical Center's eight-week moral injury/moral repair program for combat veterans.

One participant, now 33, struggles with the guilt of having killed the wrong person. "My big thing was taking another man's life and finding out later on that wasn't who you were supposed to shoot …" he told me. "The [troops] out there, they don't talk about it. They act like it never happened. Completely don't ever bring it up." 

But in the San Diego moral injury program, he did summon the courage to stand up and talk about it. "Just saying it was helpful," he said later. "There were about five people in the room, and they got it. I didn't need to have anyone say it's OK, because it's not OK—that would have just pissed me off."

What was the response of his peers? "It was silence,' he said. 'That unsaid, "I don't care what you did; we are still good …"

Felipe Tremillo, the Marine staff sergeant, took part in the San Diego program last fall. One assignment was to write an imaginary letter of apology. His was intended for a young Afghan boy whom he had glimpsed during a raid in which Marines busted down doors and ejected people from their homes while they searched inside for weapons. The boy had stood trembling as Tremillo and the Marines rifled through the family possessions, his eyes, Tremillo felt, blazing shame and rage.

"I didn't know his name," Tremillo said. But in his letter, "I told him how sorry I was at how I affected his life, that he didn't have a fair chance to have a happy life, based off of our actions as a unit." Writing the letter, he said, "wasn't about me forgiving myself, more about accepting who I am now." 


2 Samuel 12:13-16 (NRSV) 

"David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' Nathan said to David, 'Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.' Then Nathan went to his house.

"The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them." 

Matthew 2:16-18 (NRSV)

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were 2 years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'"


Buried in the biblical record of wars, disasters, and sexual violence are deep human expressions of sorrow and lament. Tamar pours ashes on her head after being raped by her brother (2 Samuel 13:19); Mordecai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes wailing through the city when he hears about the order to kill the Jews (Esther 4:1); and Ahab, fearing death after the prophet Elijah's judgment for his murder of Naboth, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and refuses to eat (1 Kings 21:27). 

The book of Lamentations recounts the destruction of Jerusalem in graphic and painful detail. In words that reveal the writer's shattered worldview, we read: "I cry aloud for help, but God refuses to listen … he waited for me like a bear; he pounced on me like a lion … our leaders have been taken and hanged … happiness has gone out of our lives … Why have you abandoned us so long? Will you ever remember us again?" (Lamentations 3:8, 10; 5:12, 15, 20).

The depth of trauma in war cannot be overstated. Neither can the anguish nor the lament. To portray the profound violation that the villagers of Bethlehem experienced at the hands of the Roman occupation troops, Matthew recalls the lament of Rachel of Ramah from an earlier time in Israel's history. As the mothers of Bethlehem release the flood of cries within them without restraint, their truth is spoken. In speaking their truth, they open the door to healing. Yet in the depth of their grief they "refuse to be comforted" (v. 18). Do they dare to name King Herod or the soldiers who killed their babies? Their journey, like that of many who experience such deep violation, is a long and painful one.

In contrast to the mothers of Bethlehem, King David is forced to face the crushing guilt of his own violence and abuse of power. His immediate response to the realization that he had sinned by using his power to kill Uriah and take Bathsheba was to withdraw in silence and isolation. Withdrawal is a common response to deep trauma, but withdrawal can often lead to self-harm or aggression toward others. Guilt is especially difficult to acknowledge as it may imply a negative core identity. David released his guilt and pain in the moving poetry of the Psalms, which voiced his sin and need for cleansing (Psalms 38, 51). 

Yet David's lament, however genuine, could not undo the harm he had caused. Silenced in the story of David's violent and duplicitous use of power are the voices of Bathsheba and Uriah. Who would hear Bathsheba's mourning for her husband, Uriah? Would David's lament ever turn into confession to Bathsheba or restitution to the family of Uriah? Could David, in his position of power, see and understand the pain he had caused?

Some veterans of current wars may find themselves so gripped by their own inner pain that they are unable to hear the cries of lament that still rise to the heavens from the wounded souls who "would not be comforted" in Iraq and Afghanistan. War is layered with laments from all who are tormented as violators and violated. To hear and acknowledge the lament of another, even an enemy, is an important step on the path to wholeness.

Other veterans may find themselves in the injustice visited on Uriah, who died at the whim of a powerful and duplicitous king. For some veterans, loyalty to their government and the call of duty has cost them their soul, and the lives of their battle buddies. What do veterans do with their pain and lament?

Eastern Mennonite University's STAR program2 notes the importance of finding a safe, supportive environment for lament and mourning, something that is often difficult for veterans to find. Many veterans look for nonjudgmental environments in which to lament, ask questions, and speak their truth, yet don't want false or easy assurances about what they may have done or not done. 

Indeed, veterans who truly lament the violation and suffering in which they have participated, often seek ways to confess their sins and seek redemption. Rather than hiding from the immense evils of war, they look for a spiritual authority to hear their confession, pay attention to the depth of their remorse, explore the meaning of
accountability, and help them make restitution. In so
doing, they directly address the spiritual dimensions of their experience with the spiritual power present in a faith community. In addition, they cease believing that they have become irredeemable monsters.

As noted in Welcome Them Home, "Confessional conversation, whether informal or formal, is not meant to be a one-time fix, but rather a spiritual exercise to be repeated as memories and awareness unfold."3

Iraq War veteran Camilo Mejia moves the conversation beyond confession to atonement.

I believe those of us who have lived through war have a moral obligation to educate the public about what is being done in their name. But first we must recognize the fact that we have injured our moral being and core, and that repairing that damage within ourselves will require a life-long commitment to atone for the wrongs we have committed against others …

I have come to believe that the transformative power of moral injury cannot be found in the pursuit of our own moral balance as an end goal, but in the journey of repairing the damage we have done onto others.4

Many veterans from the Vietnam War have eventually returned to Vietnam to engage in humanitarian work, such as removing unexploded ordnance from rice fields or addressing the long-term effects of Agent Orange.5 But even these acts, while highly significant for the veterans' healing journey, are largely symbolic, as the original harm caused by the war cannot be undone. This path toward healing is not yet possible for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. And even after war's end, it may take some time for communities ravaged by war to receive former warriors. Sometimes, the healing journeys of warriors and the healing journeys of civilians harmed by war, do not intersect. They may have very different needs. 

Other steps on the path to resilience include finding meaningful rituals to acknowledge the trauma, reflecting on root causes, learning about the other's story, choosing to forgive so that one is not bound by bitterness, and moving toward a new self-understanding or identity. These are all complex steps, many of them spiritual in nature. In the face of our human brokenness, we find that we need the help of God's Spirit to find our way.

This journey to increasing resilience may be long, and is often not a linear process. There may be setbacks, twists and turns along the way. But giving voice to trauma in a supportive environment, and directly addressing the spiritual dimensions present in the violations of war, can help veterans break free from the harmful cycles often caused by trauma.


1. Can all trauma or moral injury be transformed or overcome? Explain your answer.

2. What other biblical stories or passages do you find helpful in addressing trauma and moral pain?

3. Does your faith community provide a welcoming environment for public lament and mourning?
What would be the important ingredients of such an environment? How would you create it?

4. What historical or contemporary figures have exhibited resilience in the aftermath of trauma? What were the important factors in their resilience?

5. What role do confession, restitution, and accountability structures play in overcoming trauma that comes from violating others?  


1 Healing: Can we treat moral wounds?, by David Woods, March 20, 2014, http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/moral-injury/healing.

2 Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience; see "Breaking Cycles of Violence-Building Resilience Model" at http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/toolkit/Breaking_Cycles_of_Violence-Building_Resilience.pdf.

3 Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal, Pastoral care and ministry with service members returning from war, by Sippola, Blumenshine, Tubesing and Yancey, Wheat Ridge Ministries, 2009, p. 75.

4 "Healing Moral Injury: A lifelong journey," by Camilo Mejia, Fellowship Magazine, Winter 2011; see http://forusa.org/fellowship/2011/winter/healing-moral-injury/11606.

5 "Why U.S. Veterans are Returning to Vietnam," Nissa Rhee, Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 2013; see http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2013/1110/Why-US-veterans-are-returning-to-Vietnam.









Lesson 4: Teacher's Noteshttps://www.pjsn.org/resources/militarism/returning-veterans/lesson-4/LessonFourTeacher'sNotesLesson 4: Teacher's Notes
Lesson 4: Additional Resourceshttps://www.pjsn.org/resources/militarism/returning-veterans/lesson-4/LessonFourAdditionalResourcesLesson 4: Additional Resources



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