Hello everyone! The Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York provided another opportunity for Almost Sunrise to be seen and the topics contained within it to be explored. Like the Mountain Film festival in Telluride, Tom and I, along with director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco, watched the film with audiences and then answered their questions. It was an invigorating and inspiring time filled with good people eager to better understand the issues impacting Veterans and how they could, potentially, positively impact life for Veterans and their families. The festival was an amazing experience. Thank you to the Human Rights Watch committee for including Almost Sunrise in this year’s festival.
One of the questions that came up was the audience’s need to better understand the concept of moral injury. The film, after all, posits that it is moral injury that is the issue that is the “signature wound” of our era of Veterans. This isn’t a completely new idea, but it is relatively unknown. Whereas PTSD has been fully accepted since the 1980’s, understanding moral injury is still in it’s crawl stage. Research has been done by a host of doctors, researchers, and therapists into what role moral injury plays in the reintegration of Veterans into normal society and American culture. It’s fascinating. If you’re interested, here are some links to some awesome articles that better explain what moral injury is. I ask that before you read more of this post, read at least one of the articles on moral injury. You’ll have a better understanding of what I share below.
I was motivated to share with you a better understanding of my experience and how moral injury influence me. So, here goes:
The first time I went to war I was 21 years old. My friends were choosing college classes and going out to bars. I was choosing which direction to scan for insurgents and going out on combat patrols in Baghdad. I couldn’t appreciate or understand what it was my friends were doing as everything happening in their lives felt untouchable, distant to me. My life was going in directions that my friends and family couldn’t understand as I was becoming a reflection of my experiences. In my words and actions, I was becoming the chaos I saw everyday.
I volunteered to go back to war when I was 24 years old. I told no one. My entire family, my friends, and my coworkers were under the impression that I had been chosen to go to war to fill a vacancy in a deploying unit’s roster. In reality, I called my unit and volunteered. There was one caveat to my request. I remember saying, “I would like to volunteer. Send me to Afghanistan or back to Iraq. Don’t send me to some worthless place like Kuwait or Qatar. Put me back in it.” It was my duty to go back. The desire to go wasn’t rooted in fighting. The desire was rooted in a need to fulfill what I felt my obligation to be.
Iraq left me with vivid memories of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I saw tremendous work done by American soldiers. I saw inspiring rebuilding efforts by Iraqi citizens. I saw Iraqi children living fearlessly as they walked cratered roads where roadside bombs had exploded in an effort to kill and maim us. I saw dead bodies and injured people. I experienced, first hand, the roadside bomb. I saw one American soldier die. My memories have created a space in my mind that is like a bad neighbor—they’re always there and you deal with them as cordially as you can, but it can be hard to stop them from ruining your day when they decide to be loud and obnoxious. You beg and plead for peace and coexistence while they toss garbage over the fence. They relish being the thorn. It gives them purpose.
When I came home from my deployments, I expected to pick up my life where I left it. I was naïve and optimistic like any young man should be. However, both of my homecomings resulted in only brief periods of relief and joy followed by grueling, extended periods of sadness, regret, guilt, anxiety, and depression. It took a toll on my family and my relationships. My wife, hoping to have the man she married, was forced to adapt to the man she now received. My friends, hoping to have the guy they’ve always known, were forced to deal with a friend who liked to isolate himself from the world and didn’t have time to hang out anymore. I retreated from everyone and everything I knew. I couldn’t stand the idea of blemishing those I loved with the realities of the “new” me. It also wasn’t their burden the bear. I was constantly exhausted from lack of restful sleep, constantly anxious and unable to relax, and anger became my new constant companion. My world was becoming smaller and filled with negative thoughts, actions, and consequences. I wanted to kill myself. I thought about it constantly. How? When? Should I leave a note? Chest or headshot? I practiced and rehearsed. I took an unloaded gun and completed the steps over and over. I was building the muscle memory I needed to do it.
Thankfully, a different opportunity to address the pain emerged. I went on a long walk—a walk from Wisconsin to California. Together with my friend and fellow Iraq Vet, Tom, we traversed the landscape of America on our way to the Pacific while mentoring each other as peers. I thought about what I could do to address the pain and guilt and sadness that permeated every aspect of my life, ripping even the joys of fatherhood away from me. At the end of the 2,700-mile odyssey, I didn’t feel healed and fixed. I felt better prepared to handle the steps it would take to get there. And I will get there.
Recently, someone asked me to define moral injury and explain the difference between PTSD and moral injury. I explained PTSD is considered a mental disorder, where moral injury is more like a bruising of the soul. I explained, “PTSD is what wakes me up in the middle of the night. Moral injury is what keeps me from falling asleep.” The irony is that dealing with moral injury is what allows you to wake up and see life happening before your very eyes. It’s worth addressing and you’re worth fixing.
I’ve been dealing with moral injury, PTSD, and my memories of Iraq for over a decade. But I’m hopeful that the time I’ve spent addressing these things will leave me stronger and more capable. The horizon is bright. After so many years it’s easy to see the light in the distance as a freight train barreling full-speed at you. Instead, I prefer to see it as the light of a new day. It’s almost here. I want to meet it. I’m too awake to roll over anymore.
We’ll see you on the new trail. Keep checking in. More blogs to follow 😉