Can "Moral Injuries" Be Healed? The Lilly Endowment Thinks So

Okay, first things first: Just what, exactly, is a moral injury? 

It's what can happen when you're involved in some really heavy stuff like making life-and-death choices, witnessing immoral acts, failing to prevent something terrible from happening, or doing something yourself that feels immoral.

After such experiences, you can walk away feeling guilty, ashamed, and deeply compromised in your self-identification as a good person. 

That all sounds horrible and, unfortunately, moral injury is pretty common among veterans of war. Bad things happen in combat zones, and soldiers can come home with a deep sense that they've been party to evil and done something wrong. 

This is different than PTSD, although moral injury is often confused with that condition. And a big problem is that clinicians trained in handling PTSD don't tend to know how to handle moral questions about what went down on the battlefield. 

That's where the Lilly Endowment comes in. It's one of the few big foundations around that really does care about answering moral questions, which it approaches through its funding on religion. Recently, Lilly gave $600,000 to the Brite Divinty School in Fort Worth, Texas, for its work on moral injury.

Brite's work on moral injury is housed at its Soul Repair Center, which should win an award for its name. On the other hand, talk of repairing souls does send up some red flags, making us wonder just what the Brite Divinity School is all about. But no worries: This is legit outfit, as you might expect of a Lilly grantee; it's been around for about a century. 

And its work on moral injury is substantive stuff. Leading this effort is an interesting trio that includes two divinity PhDs and a retired military chaplain. That sounds like the right combination of folks to tackle the moral injuries of war. One of the Center's co-directors, Rita Brock, is the co-author of a book on the subject, Soul Repair: Recovery from Moral Injury After War, and she has been an advocate of more public education and other work to address moral injury. 

Over 2 million Americans served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some will be haunted for life by what they saw or what they did. So moral injury is not a small problem, which helps explain the size of Lilly's grant. Nor is it a fringe concept dreamed up by theologians. In 2009, clinicians from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offered a formal definition of moral injury. 

The Soul Repair Center has created a webinar on helping veterans deal with moral injury, and all that Lilly money should allow it to do much more to push these ideas into the mainstream.