Fort Stewart, Georgia -- Lieutenant Col. Kenneth Dwyer, Hunter Army Airfield's garrison commander, addressed an audience of unit ministry teams from across the installation, and leaders and soldiers from the 188th Combined Arms Training Brigade, First Army Division East, during a moral injury forum at the post's main chapel. During his presentation, he shared his combat story when he lost his left eye and left hand.
"On my tour in Afghanistan in 2006, I was helping a Mark 19 gunner reload when an RPG hit my left hand," he said. He continued to share his story stating that it was still difficult to speak about the events that transpired which led him to this point, but it was important.
"It's important to have those difficult conversations, it's important to be upfront even though it's uncomfortable to talk about moral injury," he said.
Moral injury (MI) develops when a soldier experiences moral dissonance and it affects the life of the soldier and the people around them. Usually, the cause of this dissonance is combat-related.
"The idea is not new, but the terminology is relatively new," said Chap. (Maj.) David Stoner, 188th brigade chaplain.
Chaplain (Col.) Jeff Zust, First Army chaplain, shared a story about Minnesota's Itasca National Park where at one point the Mississippi River is so narrow a person can jump across it. The Mississippi River was used as an analogy for the challenges that come along with being a soldier. Sometimes the stressors and traumatic events can be easily overcome by jumping from one side of the river to the next, but many times the river is just too wide.
"For many soldiers, so many things converge and keep moving that it keeps accumulating, pushing them past their mental, spiritual, and physical breaking point," Zust said.
He has written a paper on the nature of moral injury and what leaders must know. He said that moral injury is often confused with post traumatic stress and post traumatic stress disorder. They are two separate issues, but are often interconnected.
"Post traumatic stress may be the result of a moral injury," said Stoner. He said the reason they hosetd this forum is because when it comes to PTS(D), most people only want to address the symptoms, which may include: getting angry for no reason, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, isolation and numbness.
"When a person sees themselves as the perpetrator, the event may become so painful that it is easier to bury it than to talk about it. They would rather deal with the symptoms, rather than the cause itself because the symptoms feel normal," Stoner said.
However, these symptoms may lead to soldiers getting themselves into trouble because of the inability to cope with a situation, families falling apart because of difficulties in the marriage, or possibly getting involuntarily separated from the Army.
"The person may not realize that it's all tied to one event or a series of events. This forum helps us to narrow the definition of moral injury and gives us a launching point to start talking about the cause of the post traumatic stress," he said.
Inviting Dwyer to speak was important because his battle scars are visible. Soldiers can relate, and learn of techniques to begin or continue their recovery.
"Surrounding myself with truly positive people who only want the best for you, finding your purpose and living it everyday, and most importantly you gotta have a healthy sense of humor," said Dwyer of the three things that helped him recover from both his visible and invisible injuries.
Chaplain (Capt.) Richard Rivers, Warrior Transition Unit chaplain, survived an improvised explosive device (IED) detonation while deployed and he appreciated the opportunity to come and listen to the speakers.
"I have gone through much of this, but I didn't have these tools. Having this training is incredibly beneficial for helping the soldier to grow and recover," he said. He said that traumatic events that affect a person's moral perspective don't have to be war-driven, it can be something that is critical enough to "cause a break in their narrative". It can happen when someone's sense of right and wrong has been violated.
"Moral injury has no logic, we can't always justify why it happens to us," Dwyer said. But he says there are resources available to assist soldiers and families with dealing with it.
There are still those that would rather not discuss their problems because there is still the lingering stigma of how the soldier will be perceived by peers and leaders for coming forward. Chaplain (Maj.) Stoner stated that this is always going to be difficult because there still needs to be a cultural change within the Army.
"I want to emphasize that soldiers and family members do not have to worry about negative consequences of talking about and dealing with PTS(D) and moral injury. There are enough systems and resources out there that will give them the confidentiality they seek."