Nathan Castle, O.P.
teacher, preacher, workshop facilitator


Moral Injury

“We need you religious and spiritual leaders to step up your game.
There’s not a pill for everything.”

I wasn’t sure why I was attending this conference on the needs of military veterans and their families until those words rumbled through me.

The keynote speaker at the front of the assembly hall was Dr. William Nash, Director of Psychological Health for the U. S Marine Corps. And I’m Father Nathan Castle, OP, a Catholic priest with very little knowledge of military anything. I have worked with young men and women the age of many who are currently deployed during a long career in campus ministry. I believe I’m an expert in healing the hidden wounds of the soul. That day in April, 2015, at the opening session of the symposium of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, I wanted to enlist on the spot in the effort to bring peace to soldiers’ hearts.

Have you heard that phrase before, Moral Injury? Less than a year ago it was new to me; now it’s a new direction in my life’s work. Here’s how the VA introduced the term in 2009:

Moral Injury is disruption in an individual’s confidence and expectations about his or her own moral behavior or others’ capacity to behave in a just and ethical manner… The lasting impact of moral injury in war remains chiefly unaddressed.”

I’ve also heard it put this way, describing the experience of combat veterans:
“You used to believe the world was good. But now you don’t.
You used to believe that you were good. But now you don’t.
You used to believe that God was good. But now you don’t.
You used to believe that your future would be good. But now you don’t.”

Isn’t this what PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) is all about? I asked that question. Dr. Nash explained that only 15% of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get that specific diagnosis. He explained that only a psychiatrist like him can officially make that diagnosis, and that there are as many as six behaviors which must be evidenced. Many veterans’ suffering doesn’t rise to that level or is not manifest in dissociative breaks with reality that can plague PTSD sufferers. But something is behind the loss of 22 veterans a day to suicide, many of whom were not diagnosed with PTSD.

I’ve recently given retreats in churches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Pope Francis themed this as the “Year of Mercy,” so my topic had to do with the inner woundedness that so many of us carry around. I led healing of memory sessions including the Catholic sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Some of our darker memories don’t stay in the past; they resurface and cause us ongoing pain. They can take away our freedom, and our joy. But they can be healed.

When I mentioned to people that I have a heart for veterans and hoped they might invite veterans, including those who wouldn’t ordinarily be found at church, to take part in our retreats, the stories began to flow.  I heard about the brother, only three weeks back from Iraq, who had a fatal motorcycle accident when he left the highway at a high rate of speed.  And of the son who overdosed on his prescribed medications. I heard of the nephew, another young veteran, whose autopsy revealed drugs in his system after a fiery single vehicle crash. None of these would have been included in the 22-a-day suicide figures. One young vet whispered that your family doesn’t get your life insurance money if your suicide is obvious.  I hadn’t thought about that.

I get it that lots of people, especially morally injured veterans, won’t go near a church. I don’t like to spend all my time in church either. Jesus was thrown out of his own hometown synagogue and was unwelcome in the Jerusalem temple, especially after he famously trashed the place.

Pope Francis has asked priests to “get out of their sacristies and into the streets.”  He has said many times that he longs for a church that is a “field hospital,” a M*A*S*H unit.  Those have to be portable.  So I’ve begun traveling anywhere people will have me to meet veterans who have a story to tell.

I’ve told my own story in my first book, “And Toto, Too: The Wizard of Oz as a Spiritual Adventure.”  I had my own inner wound from childhood and got healed of it.  When I did, I felt like “there’s no place like home.”  So now I lead retreats using the Oz story. Sometimes I include the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sometimes I use Joseph Campbell’s teaching on the monomyth and “The Hero’s Journey”, the one huge classic story he thinks is underneath all epic stories. The word hero gets used a lot around veterans. It’s used with respect, but I’ve found not all vets are comfortable with that label. One Afghanistan returnee told me he sometimes wants to reply, “You wouldn’t be thanking me if you knew what I’ve done.” That’s moral injury in a sentence.

I’m working on something I’m calling “The No Place Like Home Project.” I know it sounds strange, but can you imagine using the classic movie, “The Wizard of Oz” to help veterans (and their families) heal of moral injury? I think having the heart of a child is critical to living life well at any age. War crushes childlikeness. Some combat veterans come home, still in their twenties or thirties, but old-beyond-their-years. Can we get younger inside? Can our souls get younger as our bodies get older? I think so. In fact, I’m sure of it.

I’m holding small meetings in veterans’ homes with their own circle of veteran friends. A Desert Storm vet is opening her home from 10 to 4 on a Sunday for a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” I’m hoping vets will help me assemble a workbook to help folks talk about their hidden war wounds.  Here’s a sample from the flier we’re using to advertise the event:

TOTO, WE’RE NOT IN COMBAT ANYMORE.

“The Wizard of Oz” Through
Veterans’ Eyes

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She left home young.
She went to a foreign land and was caught between worlds.
She met a band of new companions and friends.
She faced an enemy.
She was exposed to a chemical weapon and was confronted with corruption in high places.
She was attacked from the air, held prisoner in a dark fortress and rescued in a special operation.
She rescued a friend under fire.
She killed twice without ever wanting to.
She did everything asked of her and was considered a hero.
Even then she had trouble getting all the way home.
Finally, with only a little help, she found that what she needed was inside her all along and could say, “Oh, Toto, There’s no place like home!”

Nathan G. Castle is the author of “And Toto, Too: The Wizard of Oz as a Spiritual Adventure.”  He’s writing a companion workbook for helping combat veterans come to peace about their wartime experiences and really make it all the way home.  And he needs our help.

You’re invited to an event in my home on Sunday, April 10th from 10am to 4pm. We’ll watch this classic film through our veterans’ eyes. Could its messages help our returning brothers and sisters in arms and their loved ones live the peaceful lives they hope for? The event is free; lunch will be provided.

Many are now speaking of a “soul wound” and a need for “soul repair.” If you think there could be something to this, check out the Soul Repair Center at the Brite Divinity School, part of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s the link to their website: http://brite.edu/academics/programs/soul-repair/.