Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Overcoming moral injury
As a young airman, Bernard Smith was used to working on the flight line, helping prepare aircraft for flight into the Vietnam jungle. That is until the day an officer at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon ordered him to assist the mortician who prepared the bodies of fallen service members for their final flight home.
Overnight, Smith went from cleaning out planes to opening body bags, often finding remains in horrifying conditions. He vividly remembers the shock of what he saw, and how unprepared he was for the assignment.
But Smith connected with the mortician he was assisting, admiring his compassion and the way he spoke to each of the deceased service members.
“He would put the towel over their eyes,” Smith recalled, “and then he would tell them ‘Young man, you’ve done your time and now we’re going to take care of you and get you home to your family.”
For decades, Smith was haunted by what he witnessed, but he kept quiet and slipped further and further into depression. He lived like a hermit, often having nightmares and waking in the middle of the night screaming. He struggled with alcohol abuse and broken personal relationships.
“I just did not want to talk to anyone about it,” he said.
But he finally did talk about it with Chaplain John Painter, who is leading a new effort at Charleston VAMC to assist Veterans with overcoming moral injury. Most often, moral injury develops when a Veteran experiences or witnesses acts that violate deeply held moral beliefs. Although moral injury is not classified as a mental disorder, Painter works alongside VA mental health practitioners to help Veterans overcome these struggles.
“As chaplains, we have always seen this,” explained Painter, “but the mental health community has now recognized this struggle of the spirit. It’s a real philosophical grief people are dealing with.” Some Veterans with moral injury experience shame or guilt, and many are seeking forgiveness from a moral authority, according to Painter.
Therapy or sessions with chaplains vary based on the Veteran’s needs. They could include casual visits, or taking confession, or even support group sessions which are now underway at Charleston VAMC. Painter adds that religion may not even play a part in moral injury treatment efforts.
While Painter’s visits with Smith are often laid back and full of funny quips, Painter says he sees progress being made as Smith opens up more about his experiences.
“Some may see a casual conversation and not see it as treatment,” said Painter, “but some can only talk in humor.”
And as the saying goes, laughter is often the best medicine.
Natalie Caula Hauff and Tonya Lobbestael contributed to this story.