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Healing Invisible Wounds: Cannon AFB Addresses Moral Injury Impact

  • Published
  • By Capt. R. Brenner Campbell
  • 27th Special Operations Wing

“How do I go home to my two-year-old son when I took the life of a little boy from his dad?”

This question was posed to me during my rotation through Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar in 2019. The Airman had just finished recounting, with tears streaming down his face, a point in his deployment to an unspecified location in Southwest Asia where he was ordered to call in an airstrike on a building where insurgents were hiding. Among the structure’s remains, he found the bodies of non-combatants among the dead.

The fact that the warfighter was so broken was not by any fault of his own. He was sent into battle with the tactical and physical training to execute his mission, however he was never really given the opportunity to make himself ready spiritually and mentally for the actions he would take. These experiences led to the devastating moral injury he ultimately suffered.

Unfortunately, the kind of crisis he experienced is one I have frequently seen during my time in Air Force Special Operations Command. It’s time we start addressing this issue properly. Starting this September, our chaplain team is introducing new training programs to help Cannon’s Air Commandos ready themselves for the spiritual and moral fight they will take away from the battlefield.

In the simplest terms, moral injury is what occurs when an individual is involved in anything which contradicts the moral teachings they grew up with. For the military, the act is often taking a life. We have just cause to fight our enemies, but even when it is righteous, the act of killing is a traumatic experience that can test even the strongest resolve. Moral injury can also occur as a result of survivor’s guilt; it can make individuals who survived an event, where others died, feel wrong for having lived. The feeling it induces can be described as a weight on one’s conscience. This feeling causes those afflicted to question the morality of their actions and their character to the point of depression and despair.

Mission sets centered around delivering or enabling lethality combined with a high tempo of real-world operations and the inherent danger of combat means heightened opportunity for broken consciences, and those who suffer can find it difficult to find solace in family and friends due to the  classified nature of their work. This can lead to the potential for Air Commandos to adopt unhealthy and even dangerous coping methods.

Across the SOF enterprise, leaders recognize it’s difficult to conduct special operations missions long term without some mechanism by which they can balance the needs of the mission and who they are behind the uniform, and the command’s chaplain corps has made it its mission to help Air Commandos find that balance. It starts with a foundation, and that’s what our chaplain team is looking to provide by developing a moral injury training regimen for Airmen here: A moral foundation that instills in them both a righteous justification for the acts of war they will take and the capability to overcome a potential ethical crisis they may face as a result of those acts.

The training will be conducted for both individual units and for spouses and while the length will vary from squadron to squadron, those who participate can expect for the training to last anywhere from one to two hours. Highly-engaged speakers from the chaplain corps and private sector with backgrounds in the study of moral injury will teach, among other things, about just war theory and why the reasons America goes to war are valid and noble, how to build the cognitive conditions needed to push past the spiritual strife of combat and its aftermath, and how to build an atmosphere within units and homes that allows for healing from moral injury.

The training may sound to some like just any other training item to check off but make no mistake: it will help Airmen be better equipped for the demands of military operations and increase their lethality. Not only will it keep them from faltering in combat due to moral injury, it will strengthen their will to fight for our country, our values and our way of life because they will have more resolve in the justice of our cause.

To sum it up, we will help you train your soul and the souls of those around you just like you would train in any other area that is vital to success in combat. We’re not waiting anymore to address moral injury until after the fight is over; We are preparing you for the challenges that extend beyond the battle, so you can experience restoration and be prepared for the next objective.