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War zone killing: Vets feel ‘alone’ in their guilt
“I can’t forgive myself,” he says. “And the people who can forgive me are dead.”
With American troops at war for more than a decade, there’s been an unprecedented number of studies into war zone psychology and an evolving understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinicians suspect some troops are suffering from what they call “moral injuries” _ wounds from having done something, or failed to stop something, that violates their moral code.
Though there may be some overlap in symptoms, moral injuries aren’t what most people think of as PTSD, the nightmares and flashbacks of terrifying, life-threatening combat events. A moral injury tortures the conscience; symptoms include deep shame, guilt and rage. It’s not a medical problem, and it’s unclear how to treat it, says retired Col. Elspeth Ritchie, former psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general.
“The concept … is more an existentialist one,” she says.
The Marines, who prefer to call moral injuries “inner conflict,” started a few years ago teaching unit leaders to identify the problem. And the Defense Department has approved funding for a study among Marines at California’s Camp Pendleton to test a therapy that doctors hope will ease guilt.
But a solution could be a long time off.
Killing in war is the issue for some troops who believe they have a moral injury, but Ritchie says it also can come from a range of experiences, such as guarding prisoners or watching Iraqis kill Iraqis as they did during the sectarian violence in 2006-2007.
“You may not have actually done something wrong by the law of war, but by your own humanity you feel that it’s wrong,” says Ritchie, now chief clinical officer at the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health.
Kudo’s remorse stems in part from the 2010 accidental killing of two Afghan teenagers on a motorcycle. His unit was fighting insurgents when the pair approached from a distance and appeared to be shooting as well.
Kudo says what Marines mistook for guns were actually “sticks and bindles, like you’d seen in old cartoons with hobos.” What Marines thought were muzzle flashes were likely glints of light bouncing off the motorcycle’s chrome.
“There’s no day _ whether it’s in the shower or whether it’s walking down the street … that I don’t think about things that happened over there,” says Kudo, now a graduate student at New York University.
“Human beings aren’t just turn-on, turn-off switches,” Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis says, noting that moral injury is just a different name for a familiar military problem. “You’re raised on `Thou shalt not kill,’ but you do it for self-preservation or for your buddies.”
Kudo never personally shot anyone. But he feels responsible for the deaths of the teens on the motorcycle. Like other officers who’ve spoken about moral injuries, he also feels responsible for deaths that resulted from orders he gave in other missions.
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