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July Chaplain's Reflection

Portrait of Chaplain, Capt. Benjamin McEntire, with the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., Jan. 10, 2013.
(National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson/Released)

Chaplain, Capt. Benjamin McEntire, 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C.

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

Moral Injury & Forgiveness-a Path to Wholeness

In my last article I discussed the importance of knowing what one believes about morality and why they hold those beliefs because having one's moral beliefs more thoroughly processed can help one better navigate through the tough spots. However, the moral challenges one faces in war are never cut-and-dry, and one will most likely come away from their time in a warzone with something that has deeply impacted them.

The deep violation of one's moral convictions, either through one's own actions or the actions of others, be it as a witness, by-stander, or victim, is called a moral injury. Because we will likely face such injuries ourselves, we have to ask what we need to overcome them. One of the answers is to have a framework for forgiveness.

People have often seen forgiveness as a sign of weakness, or wrongly thought that forgiving means believing that what was done wasn't truly wrong or hurtful. What those ideas overlook is that when one doesn't forgive, they harbor anger, resentment or bitterness that comes out destructively in other areas of life. Some describe this by saying that not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to drop dead.

Many of the behaviors, attitudes and dysfunctions people carry are often lingering responses to wounds people have experienced earlier in life, and this is true of moral injuries as well. For example, when one's actions in war have led to the deaths of others, especially non-combatants or their teammates, they can harbor extensive guilt, shame and self-rejection or loathing. How do you think that impacts their marriage or their relationships with their children and coworkers? Obviously it makes such relationships far more difficult.

That's where forgiveness comes in. For the service member in our example, there are several things that need to happen for them to find healing.

First, they need to share with someone they can talk to openly about it. I have encountered many who have found healing for deep emotional and moral injuries, and have learned that much of the healing came from sharing what happened. It is very important that the person share specifically what they or the ones at fault did and why that was a violation to them. Sharing such as this can be one of the most difficult acts for a person to undertake, but often the most difficult acts bring about the most healing.

Secondly, the person needs to recognize that forgiving themselves or others is NOT saying that the perpetrators aren't guilty, but that in forgiving them they are giving up their desire for retribution. If something hurtful hasn't happened, then there's nothing to forgive.

Lastly, the person needs to decide to find some way to release their emotional desire for justice and enact it. There are many ways to do this. Some offer the wrongs up to God in prayer and pray a prayer of forgiveness for the specific wrongs and ask God to give them peace in the place of the pain of the wrongs. Others may write all the wrongs on a sheet of paper along with what they'd like to see done about them, and then have a ceremony where they burn it and let the wrongs go. Some may make a decision not to right the wrong, but to do something good each day as a way to use the painful events of the past to direct them toward a better future.

Some find it helpful, if it is possible or responsible, to express their forgiveness toward those who hurt them or their regret toward those hurt by their actions. Sometimes this can't or shouldn't be done, and sometimes the impact this may have won't be seen in this lifetime. However, if it is possible and reasonable, then another way to find release could be to send a letter that describes the wrong but says, "I forgive you." That letter might even be something that one sends to themselves.

Everyone needs to forgive at some point in life, and for many different reasons. If you believe that you need to walk through a process of forgiving yourself or someone else, the Chaplain Corps and the Director of Psychological Health are here to help you, and you're encouraged to come. Starting the process of forgiving is starting the process of healing. Why wait?