(This content was first published in 2017 in Yago Abeledo’s outstanding site, Breathing Forgiveness: http://www.breathingforgiveness.net ).
Glen Miller is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He served as an Army Ranger Team Leader from September 1969-September 1970. Six men made up a standard Army Ranger combat patrol. Glen has also been an adjunct professor for Temple University’s Fox School of Business, teaching ethics and leadership courses. Glen founded Veterans Community Network of Montgomery County, PA in 2014, with his wife Mary.
Scott Hutchinson has been a Pastor in the United Church of Christ for more than 32 years, serving local churches in eastern PA. He was a counseling professional for thirteen years prior. Scott’s areas of focus and expertise include forgiveness, trauma healing, and peace education. Scott is co-founder of the COMPASS Healing Circle and the proprietor of The Forgiveness Lab. Scott is married to Debra, a U.S. Army Veteran.
“Well, I am almost through my first patrol. The jungle is hot and dense. For four days I have not been able to see more than a few yards ahead. Monkeys and snakes move suddenly and scare me but so far no NVA. It was my hope to earn my stripes with some action. This war includes killing and dying just like other wars, and I did not see any of that so far. Sarge holds up his fist for the five of us to stop. Our team is on the edge of the LZ. We have survived and will soon be extracted through a small clearing in Southeast Asia jungle. Sarge indicates that we we should sit and rest; eyes front, sides, and Pudge takes the rear. His face says we are never safe.
I open up a can of peaches saved for this occasion, the end of my first Ranger patrol. I slurp some peach juice. Then crack, crack, crack of two weapons. Sarge and his point man kill a man on the LZ. I cannot see clearly but now there is just silence and the hum of the radio.
Pop smoke! Roger, smoke out. Purple smoke! Roger. The chopper pulls into the LZ; I find my peaches and prepare to move out. Now, I see the dead man. I see no weapon. I get on the chopper.”
Glen told this story in the Healing Circle. Glen, Scott, and others commit to Circle once a month. In Circle we tell our truth and truth continues to unfold. Our spirits and souls are intertwined with these stories. The authors are: Glen, a Vietnam era combat veteran; and Scott, a minister and a man of peace with his own experiences in war zones and places of enmeshed conflict. Scott is a Strongheart for the Circle process. Stronghearts listen without judgment.
Together we will use snippets of our year-long dialogue to explore journeys of healing from the soul wounds of war. We will pay particular attention to the relationship between forgiveness and atonement in addressing the crucible of war’s demons: namely betrayal, murder, killing, and fear. We do not intend to minimize the courage and honor that also accommodate the fog of war. However, our purpose is not with the positive stories. Our purpose is to illuminate the deep and unrelenting pain that many veterans suffer. Some may characterize the pain as moral injury.
Glen: Now days I reflect on that first combat patrol. In my gut I know that Sarge should not have shot that man to death. Forty-five years after the fact I know that I witnessed a murder. Murder is wrong and I was a witness. What do you do with that dreadful thought?
Questions haunt me, particularly at night. Could I have done anything to stop the murder? Why do these things happen? Is it alright to kill someone that may be the enemy by night but searching for food by day?
I do not expect answers in Circle. What seems to be working is deep listening and openness to difficult truths I am telling. Many times I wish that I had never questioned the killing. Nobody said anything about it when we got on the chopper. The mood was that killing an innocent is just part of war. Could I be the only one that questions the morality of this act? Was my inaction a betrayal of my own conscience? Are there moral standards in war? Or perhaps a better question is: do immoral acts linger in the soul of then soldier? If so, and I think they do, what can one do to make amends?
Scott: You have a flood of important, interrelated questions there. First, you are articulating—with considerable clarity–your own experience of moral injury, what we have called a “soul wound.” You are someone who participated in several dozen combat missions, events that continued to impact and shape your life over five subsequent decades. Post-traumatic stress has been daily reality for you and Mary over those years.
Glen: So the killing of the innocent kid wounded me even though I didn’t shoot him?
Scott: Yes. Moral Injury can result when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs. The consequences can be devastating.
Glen: I think that’s true. But I never thought about it that way.
Scott: What is unsettling you now is that, forty-five years later, you are identifying this initial trauma as the one that substantially defines and frames your war year, and that may be the source of your greatest distress.
Glen: Well, I had not thought about that first mission until Circle. I think the prompt for that night in Circle was about trust and betrayal.
Scott: Though you have admittedly taken life in combat, what is most disturbing to you is that you witnessed what you now describe as the murder of an unarmed man.
Glen: I know that I do not wake up at night thinking about killing NVA. I do wake up thinking about that kid coming back to get me.
Scott: You ask yourself, “Could I have done anything to stop it?” It bothers you deeply that no one, including you, objected.
Glen: It is bothering me now.
Scott: You asked if your inaction was a betrayal of your conscience.
Glen: Yes, it is and it hurts. Right now I wish I had never questioned the killing.
Scott: That is acknowledgement that you are grappling with material that is essential for your healing and for your commitment to live with integrity. Glen, if you listen again to your own questions, you’ll realize that they are not so much queries as they are testimony. They have implications for all of us! But let’s stick with you.
Glen: Remembering is challenging and painful. I have witnessed immoral acts. I have killed in combat. And I have sinned. These acts and witnesses are a part of me. So how do I bring my full identity into congruence with the man I intend to be?
Scott: “Forty-five years after the fact I know I witnessed a murder.” While you may not be able to identify every development that has led to this revelation, it seems to me that there is a measure of salvation for you in reclaiming the details. You also state with equal clarity: “I have witnessed immoral acts. I have killed in combat. I have sinned. These acts and witnesses are a part of me.” Your words are deeply confessional. Has sharing your story with me and in Circle enabled your confession?
Glen: Sure. Talking with friends and veterans in the Circle has helped me remember. Talking with you helps clear up the mess.
Scott: I think that the story of the first patrol ending in murder is an awakening for the deeper soul searching. The story demanding to come out was prompted by the sacredness of our Circle and our friendship. The first patrol may not have been your defining combat experience; but it is certainly revealed as your defining moral experience.
Glen: I do feel guilty, like I did something wrong.
Scott: When I hear the clarity of your statements and the language that you choose, I am reminded of our mission partner Chris, who was an Army Chaplain in Afghanistan. He suggested that to pastorally understand the problem facing returning veterans, we need need to wrestle with the term sin and its meaning. That killing is an offense to our nature, an offense to right conscience. That sin seems to be the inevitable consequence of all war.(1)
Glen: Probably it is. It is confusing but sharing my confusion helps.
Scott: Your story is a powerful commentary on what Chris has said. As I re-read his words I can also hear you: “So how do I bring my full identity into congruence with the man I intend to be?” This is so important. When we talk about the soul we are talking about identity at the richest levels of our self-understanding and expression. The soul is who we are as whole people; deeply human. Soul wounds are injuries–often severe–that do harm and distortion to that identity. In reluctantly identifying yourself as “sinner,” one who has witnessed immorality and has killed, you are claiming your history as someone who has wounded others and also incurred wounds. You are speaking truth and also claiming your moral agency.
Glen: Well, it is a relief to remember. It also disturbs my sleep; but the witness of killing an innocent is definitely more disturbing than combat.
Scott: The groundbreaking VA study that began addressing “moral injury” identified anguish, guilt, and shame as “signs of an intact conscience and self and other expectations about goodness, humanity, and justice.”(2) So your inner and increasingly articulated struggles are a sign of your moral health, Glen; a significant measure of well-being and intactness in the midst of the pain and confusion that has been a chronic state.
Glen: Just remembering then is a step towards wholeness.
Scott: Yes. The future can be different not in spite of the sin and woundedness but because of it and your willingness to claim it. Your truth illuminates broader truths. That you are a sinner in a society that is sinful and engages the sin of war with an addictive fervor.(3) But that is not all of who you are; neither is it all that your comrades-in-arms are or will be.
Glen: I want to be less angry and more at peace.
Scott: Is giving voice to your experiences helping you?
Glen: Yes. Talking with you and reflecting on our Circle meetings is actually helping me remember. I am restless and sometimes have nightmares after our talks our Circle meetings.
Scott: Judith Herman has written a classic book, Trauma and Recovery. In it, she teaches that post-traumatic healing involves reconstruction of a personal narrative. She calls the process “the restorative practice of truthtelling.”(4) I wonder if that is what is happening as you are sharing your story with me.
Glen: I think so. More importantly, I trust you!
Scott: And I am honored by the way you en-trust me.
Glen: So again: how do I bring my full identity into congruence with the I intend to be. How does remembering and my truth telling help?
Scott: You talked about our conversations and the Circle helping you remember. It also stirred memories and material that you have been holding for a long time. The release can lead in the immediate to the restlessness you describe. Yet, in an environment that is trustworthy and non-judgmental, you are invited to deepen the journey. We might call this Re-memberment: restoration of that which has been fragmented and dismembered.
Glen: Well, not remembering the murder for so long moves towards an unsettled feeling; perhaps broken apart from a bad memory. It is my desire to be whole. What do you think is next?
Scott: The re-construction of your narrative opens up the possibility for you to understand and experience your story in new ways that offer possibility and are life-giving. Your words, as profound as they are, have been offered in the midst of a larger history and context. Being able to recover and re-tell a fuller story opens the door for release. Sharing it with others in an environment of trust makes it real.
Glen: But what do you think it opens the door to?
Scott: In my faith tradition, we call it atonement. It is helpful to break that term down: At-one-ment. It is movement toward wholeness.
Glen: Tell me more.
Scott: According to our friend Ed Tick, atonement is “performing acts of repair that bring what was separated, divided, or broken back into union . . .re-creating oneness within and between people and nations from the shattered bits of the worlds that are left after the aftermath of wars carnage.”(5) Glen, I think “within” and “between” are really important terms here. Your inner healing and actions taken to heal the world are inextricably tied together. With the process of your inner healing, we are working toward reconstructing a “whole story” for your life, rather than being locked in a fractured or reduced story defined by events that have traumatized you.
Glen: Telling you what i feel about combat leads to more remembering. I feel the need to piece that together.
Scott: You get passionate and energized when you talk about moral injury.
Glen: That’s true. I want others to learn from my experiences. Other veterans could benefit and be more at peace in their own skin.
Scott: I suggest that your outreach to veterans is atonement. It helps them while it helps you.
Glen: It is healing. I have some nightmares but I’m more calm and at peaceful during the day.
(1) Antal, C.J. (2013. Moral injury, Soul Wound, and Sin. White paper received from author, pp. 11, 13.
(2) Litz, B., Stein, N., Delany, E., Liebowitz, L., Nash, W.P., Silva, C., Maguen, S., (2009). Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy. Clinical Psychology Review. 29(8): pp. 695-706.
(3) Antal, p. 14.
(4) Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books, pp. 175-181.
(5) Cousineau, P. (ed) (2011). Beyond Forgiveness: reflections on atonement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 116.