Holy Saturday & the Hell of Coming Home: Caring for War Wounded Souls

In Packing Inferno, Iraq War veteran Tyler Boudreau describes his experience of going to war and of coming home

They say war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell. I say coming home is hell, and hell ain’t got no coordinates. You can’t find it on the charts, because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all, so when you’re there, you’re nowhere—you’re lost. The narrative, that’s your chart, your own story. There are guys who come home from war and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost. They don’t even know their own story, never have, and never will. But they’re moving amidst the text every day and every long night without even realizing it. … They live inside the narrative like a cell, and their only escape is to understand its dimensions.1

It has been said that “war is hell,”2 and it is, but as Tyler Boudreau suggests, so is coming home. Combat veterans3 come home from war with deep psychological and spiritual wounds. These wounds are related to their combat story, their ability to give voice to it, and as Boudreau suggests, their ability to “understand its dimensions.” Telling our stories—in the presence of God and one another—is to begin to find our way home from the hell of war. Even more important, though, is to hear the story of God’s descent into our hell and his overcoming of it.

With that in mind, I begin with a narration of my own story of going to war and coming home. I then outline the shape and form of the spiritual wounds or traumas of war. I offer Luke’s parable of the prodigal son stuck in the far country as a useful metaphor for understanding the situation of combat veterans who come home from war. Likewise, on Holy Saturday, Jesus’ own far country journey finds its end. On Holy Saturday, God makes his place in the grave alongside all who suffer. The church, her pastors, and all those who seek to care for those who come home from war would do well to hear this story anew. Therefore, I conclude with the claim that Holy Saturday is the most fitting place to ground theologically the spiritual care of war wounded souls.

War Is Hell

When I first entered active duty in 2009, I served as a chaplain for a field artillery battalion. Shooting artillery is a highly technical skill that requires real-time calculations and decisions to ensure that mass-casualty producing artillery shells land in the right place at the right time. Many soldiers in my battalion had trained for over a decade to hone their skills. Being an infantry soldier is its own unique specialty and also requires extensive training. Six months before we deployed, my soldiers reorganized as provisional infantry squads and platoons and began training for an infantry mission in Afghanistan. For nearly all of them, this was an unwelcome reality. Over time, some embraced the challenge, while others fought it every step of the way.

In the summer of 2010, the very beginning of the “surge” in Afghanistan, our brigade was positioned in forward operating bases and combat outposts along the Arghandab River. We were in the “spiritual heartland” of the Taliban and our mission was to prevent them from overtaking the second most important city in Afghanistan, Kandahar. Enemy personnel, weapons, and equipment were flowing freely when we arrived. Our task was to counter the insurgency by clearing the valley, holding the newly gained ground, and then maintaining order to facilitate the rebuilding of communities.

It was truly a baptism by fire. When we arrived to our area of operations (AO) the infantry company our battalion was replacing had already taken heavy casualties. Two more of their soldiers were killed while they introduced us to the key community leaders, terrain features, and tactics necessary to survive what we found to be a veritable mine field.4 Our AO was the fertile soil along the Arghandab River. Fed with water diverted from the river into canals and irrigation ditches, it was lush with grape vineyards and pomegranate orchards, along with marijuana and poppy fields. I was told by one of the locals that when early Muslim traders arrived to this valley, they believed they had rediscovered the Garden of Eden.

Sown in the soil were also countless improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most were built to detonate when a pressure sensitive plate was stepped on, closing a simple circuit, and detonating buried mortar rounds or homemade explosives (HME). While the pomegranates were supposedly the best in the world, HME was the main export when we arrived. The Taliban had expelled the locals and established HME factories in the now abandoned villages. They prevented the farmers from harvesting their fields and getting their goods to market. The farmers took refuge in larger towns on the edge of the desert and the landowners that could afford it sought safety in Kandahar.

The day my battalion assumed responsibility from that war-weary company of paratroopers, we received our first significant casualties. In less than ten minutes, three soldiers from Alpha Battery had stepped on IEDs, all of them with traumatic amputations of their lower extremities. One—who had been nearly cut in half— died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital, only to be revived when he got there.

That day—July 12, 2010—was the first of many that led me to increasingly wonder if I—if we—would ever make it home. Even if we did, could we ever be the same, physically, psychologically, or spiritually? Two days later, a sniper shot Private First Class Brandon King in the head while he was standing guard in one of the towers at Alpha Battery’s combat outpost.5 The bullet went through his helmet, his skull, his brain, and lodged itself on the other side of the helmet. I’ll never forget the way his body bounced on the litter as they took him toward the gate or the mess of blood and bone and brain that resulted from the devastating force of the bullet’s impact. The medics continued to try to get him breathing, if only to show us that they were doing everything they could. As they worked, I prayed the only prayers I could muster.

His platoon sergeant had sent him to see me before we deployed. Brandon was afraid of dying. I tried to normalize his fear. I told him, “we’re all afraid.” It seemed that it was different for him. He went absent without leave (AWOL) a few days later. The platoon sergeant called his mother. He must have told her that Brandon talked to me. She wanted to know what I thought. Over the phone, I could tell she was a religious woman and she wanted her son to do the right thing. “He was nervous about deploying,” was all I said by way of describing our conversation. She seemed to know more than she let on: “I told him we’re all going to die one day, each one of us. You just have to trust in God. When it’s your time to go there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” He came back a few days before we deployed. Perhaps he had had a genuine premonition of his own death. No one else had come to me with quite the same fear. I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend the courage that must have taken. The only certainty seemed to be, “there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”6

Trauma, guilt, grief, and fear, all mounted for me and my soldiers as the summer slowly and painfully wore on. There was IED blast after IED blast. Many escaped with only minor wounds. As time wore on though, there were dozens of traumatic amputations from IEDs and more deaths.

July 30th was the next devastating milestone for our battalion. What started as a forty-eight-hour mission turned into a bloody battle that lasted for days as we fought to keep control of a small patch of blood-stained earth at a key intersection initially known as objective Bakersfield. Many IEDs were found and safely destroyed. Three were not and two more soldiers were killed, another had a foot amputated, and many others wounded. The next day I walked down to objective Bakersfield to check on my soldiers.7 I had already seen the death and despair in the eyes of those who had rotated out. Those who stayed could no longer keep their hands from shaking. The combat and traumatic stress were overwhelming. They had hardly slept, and if they did, it was in foxholes they had dug in the dusty earth.

I am not sure I truly knew fear until I knew it that day and the next. Even though we had the close air support provided by the Kiowa and Apache helicopters overhead, we continued to take fire. The Taliban eventually got their rifle-mounted grenade launcher zeroed-in on our position. For over an hour, we took a beating. I ran from casualty to casualty trying to provide comfort to the wounded and assistance to the medics. The next day, it was more of the same, except that I too became a casualty. It was just a few small pieces of shrapnel scattered across my body. I did not even fully realize what had happened at the time. The previous blast had badly wounded my first sergeant and I was busy trying to get him to cover. When the dust settled that day and I finally lay down on my sleeping bag, the flashbacks kept coming as my body involuntarily recoiled at the reliving of each shock. I am not sure how I ever made it to sleep that night.

In the first three months, seven soldiers were killed from our small artillery battalion, dozens experienced traumatic amputations from IED explosions, and a full 20 percent were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. All the while, I performed regular services of Word and Sacrament, prayed with soldiers, counseled soldiers, conducted traumatic event debriefings, and honored each one of our fallen soldiers with memorial ceremonies. When Specialist Anthony Vera was cut in two by an IED, I went to minister to his platoon, but I confess to only being able to go through the motions one more time. I was hiding symptoms of post-traumatic stress, experiencing compassion fatigue, and had nothing left to give. It was all I could do to hang on the few more days it would be until I went on leave. I wrote about this during my deployment:

My first stop at Kandahar Airfield on my way out of country for much-needed leave was the chapel. I went seeking some sense of God’s presence. It was dark outside when I entered the dimly lit sanctuary. I was aghast as I walked past all the books, pamphlets, and bibles available in the foyer. I looked around at the wooden sanctuary, complete with pews and stained-glass windows and my initial instinct was anger and then, jealousy. I breathed them out and kept searching the room with my eyes, slowly, carefully. On a little table before going down the center aisle, there on the left side I spotted a small journal with a photograph of Mother Teresa on the cover. I knew immediately it was there for me. I picked one up, flipped to the article, and began to read. I learned about some recently published letters and personal writings in which it became evident that this deeply spiritual woman had struggled for decades with a profound sense of the absence of God. “I have come to love the darkness for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very, small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” As I read those words I laid down my burden and wept.8

In this quotation, I found the hope I needed to keep going. In my experience of God-abandonment in the midst of great suffering and evil, I found strength in knowing that Christ too suffered pain and darkness such that now all suffering is bound and contained by his own and through which his love can be known.

It was surreal to see tracer rounds being shot below me as I left our AO in a Blackhawk helicopter and then a few days later to be sitting in my own home. There, I spent time with my wife, performed my sister’s wedding, and visited with family and friends. I was even able to visit several of my wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. I never adjusted to being home. How could anyone, when all the while you knew you had to go back?

When I returned to Afghanistan, everything had changed. After taking so many casualties, my commander finally received permission to undertake a devastating offensive. The abandoned villages the Taliban used as HME factories and safe houses were too well defended and booby trapped with IEDs. The only way beyond the impasse was to destroy the villages. To be clear, the residents had long since abandoned their homes. They were now only used as strongholds by the Taliban.9 When the bombs began to fall, the Taliban realized that the rules of the game had fundamentally changed and the fighters left the valley, at least until the next fighting season. Fighting season. It sounds strange, but just like a sport, fighting has a season in Afghanistan. It picks up in the spring with the opening of the mountain passes from Pakistan, the coming of warmer nights, and the concealment of vegetation. It tapers off as the nights cool, the leaves fall, and the mountain passes become impassible. The Taliban’s early withdrawal allowed me to focus on caring for my soldiers and eased my overwhelming anxiety.

After the Taliban retreated, we were able to patrol freely the entire valley, all the way to the river. One of the most important symbols of our progress was having the privilege of baptizing one of my soldiers in the Arghandab River. Unfortunately, a few weeks later and a few hundred meters from where my soldier publicly bore witness to his faith in Christ, there were several more IED blasts that would kill another soldier and cause two more traumatic amputations.

Just a few weeks earlier, I remember several of those soldiers grimly joking that any one of us would be lucky to leave with an amputation; at least he would leave alive. This sort of gallows humor was pervasive and helped us cope with the nearness of death. By the time we redeployed back to the United States, the rebuilding of the destroyed villages had begun, with the mosques being constructed first. Farmers were once again allowed to freely work in their fields, vineyards, and orchards, and with the coming of spring it seemed for a moment that hope, too, had returned.

Coming Home is Hell, Too

I was still on post-deployment leave when I received the call telling me that one of my soldiers had died of an overdose. It was a cruel bookend to the deployment. Two months before we left for Afghanistan, one of my fellow staff officers had shot himself in the head. The first few weeks back at the office were eerily quiet, and then the dam broke. In story after story, I recognized myself.

My soldiers and I too struggled to find meaning and purpose in the aftermath of war. A large number of them suffered the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in silence and self-medicated with alcohol or drugs. The ones that did seek help found our behavioral health system incredibly overloaded. It took weeks to get an appointment. Many gave up seeking help in frustration and joined their peers in self-medication. Depression, despair, and thoughts of suicide were commonplace. Soldier after soldier was punished for misconduct and many were separated from service.10 Within six months of coming home, four soldiers had killed themselves. We had found our way home, but we were still lost. I spoke to this reality at the memorial ceremony of the second of my soldiers who died at his own hands when our battalion returned home from southern Afghanistan.

Brothers and sisters, we may be home from the war, but the war has come home with us. Of all we have had to fear, and there has been much, this scares us most. For if not at home, where is peace to be found? And yet it is here at home in the silence of our thoughts that the voices of our guilt and grief have cried out the loudest. Peace, we have learned, is not as easy as getting on a plane. Memories forever burned into our minds and bodies threaten to take us back daily and lead us to wonder if our most difficult days may yet come. Whereas once we faced the enemy with our squads and platoons, now it seems we fight on alone. With the Psalmist we cry out, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.”11

Sergeant Justin Junkin had been drinking alone and reminiscing about a dear friend who was killed in combat. Overwhelmed with emotion, he loaded his pistol and killed himself while his wife and child were sleeping in the next room.

I served to minister to such soul wounds the best I was able, even as I too was lost and hurting after coming home. I read Scripture and prayed every day while I was deployed. Toward the end, it became almost unbearable. When I returned home, I stopped praying for months and questioned my calling. I was angry at God. I was grief-stricken for my soldiers, but also for myself. At the height of my depression during the summer of 2011, I visited my home congregation to thank them for their love and support during the deployment. Their cards and letters were truly life-sustaining. I will never forget what one of these faithful women told me when I confessed that I was not praying. She said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to pray right now. We are praying on your behalf.” I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most important things anyone could have said to me at the point. It still speaks volumes to me about the nature of the church at prayer on behalf of a world that cannot pray for itself.

As I slowly reconnected with the life of the church at prayer and continued to journey with my soldiers who had been so spiritually devastated by war, I came to a renewed understanding of my calling. My story continues to unfold, but this much is clear: I now understand my calling to be, in part, directed toward the care of those who have been spiritually wounded in combat.

The Spiritual Wounds of War

The Greek root for trauma simply means wound. Throughout this study, I will be using trauma and wound interchangeably. In her groundbreaking study, Trauma and Recovery, psychiatrist Judith Herman defines psychological trauma as an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelm-ing force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.12

This overwhelming event is most often an encounter with death or its possibility, an all too frequent occurrence in combat. The result of this overwhelming force is that the traumatic returns in the form of intrusive thoughts, daytime hallucinations, and nightmares among many other frightful symptoms. As a result, hyper-vigilance becomes a way of life for the traumatized. The survivor of trauma makes every effort to avoid triggers that might provoke a painful re-experiencing of the event and negative emotional reactions. These are the symptomatic responses to trauma that can lead to a diagnosis of Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): re-experiencing the traumatic event (e.g., intrusive thoughts, distressing dreams), avoiding stimuli related to the trauma, “negative alterations in cognitions and mood,” and increased arousal (i.e., hyper-vigilance).13 While experiencing these symptoms the survivor of trauma may have a particularly difficult time maintaining her significant relationships with loved ones and even herself.

Of considerable concern for us, those who have endured significant trauma often wonder if God has abandoned them. Herman writes:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.14

Trust in the nature of God and reality can be shattered by traumatic events and there is often a loss of meaning, purpose, and hope. God’s justice and God’s love can both be put on trial in the wake of horrific trauma. As a result, the traumatized often feel cut off from God with no hope of return. This experience of God-forsakenness can cut deep into the soul of the veteran.

While trauma is a fear-based stress reaction to an encounter with death or its possibility,15 the reality that clinicians are now uncovering is that many soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq have exhibited symptoms of PTSD that have nothing to do with feeling powerless or fearing imminent death, but rather with acts that violate their conscience, e.g., the killing of innocents. The startling reality is that the greatest predictor of PTSD symptoms among combat veterans is killing. The research consistently bears out that the perpetration of violence is more injurious to soldiers than simply witnessing it. One study suggests that “actual killing or not acting to prevent killing better predicted higher suicidality, more PTSD symptoms, and other mental health disorders.”16

As a result, many psychologists have begun setting out criteria and treatment modalities for what has come to be known as moral injury. Litz et al. define moral injury as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”17 Or, as Rita Brock and Gabriella Lettini put it in their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, moral injury follows from “having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs.”18 While clinical research is in its infancy—the first comprehensive study was only completed in 200919—moral injury is as old as war itself and is evident in Homer’s epics.20 Responses to moral injury include guilt, shame, depression, and feelings of worthlessness, despair, and remorse. Many veterans are explicit in the use of theological language to describe these experiences and God’s judgment figures prominently.

Even though it is clinicians who have largely taken the lead in understanding moral injury and prescribing treatment, it should be evident that moral injury is also a spiritual wound. Both PTSD and moral injury have psychological and spiritual aspects.21 In the aftermath of war many veterans return with their faith shattered. The hellish realities of combat persist in very real ways, even though the soldier has come home. These hellish realities—encounters with death, moral failures, seemingly unending grief—may inflict deep spiritual wounds that leave many feeling abandoned by God or judged unworthy to enter into his presence.

A Far Country Journey

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of a son who is stuck in a far country. Reduced to poverty by his previously prodigal ways, the son remains in the far country in servitude and filth to survive. I find here a metaphor for the situation in which combat veterans find themselves.22 In the aftermath of morally troubling and traumatic combat experiences, they too remain stuck in a far country, often struggling just to survive. On the other side of trauma, one’s sense of purpose, meaning, and faith are often destroyed or badly damaged. What remains for the combat veteran in this far-country dislocation?

Karl Barth outlines the obedience of Christ as Son in the incarnation as “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.”23 With the help of Barth’s heading, we see that the incarnation turns the parable of the disobedient son on its head. It is as an obedient Son to the Father that Christ empties himself of his heavenly glory and makes his way to our far country. The Son of God willingly suffered this dislocation in the far country even unto death on a cross and descent into the depths of hell.24 In Jesus’ parable, it is the love and mercy of the father that remains for the prodigal son. This is the upshot of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s interpretation of Holy Saturday.25 Even as Jesus experiences God’s utter abandonment on the cross and descends into the very depths of hell, through the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father for the Son remains. Thus, veterans may know that even in the farthest reaches of the far country, even in the depths of hell, God has already made his place with them.

With that in view, I suggest that the church embrace a theology of Holy Saturday, particularly in light of the church’s confession of Jesus’ descent into hell. In conversation with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Barth’s doctrine of the descent and the God-abandonment of Jesus is extended from the cross to include the grave. I argue that the story of salvation, and even God’s very being as God for us and with us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, turns on this moment in the life of God in which God abandons God on the cross and in the grave. Indeed, it is from this moment of utter hopelessness that our salvation and all hope spring forth.

In the liturgies of the church, Holy Saturday is marked by absence and silence. The altar is stripped bare. The Eucharist does not return until the Easter Vigil. There is no light from candles and no vestments are worn. As the church remembers Jesus’ burial and death, we hold vigil at the tomb and wait. This is where the church, and her pastors and chaplains, must begin with those who come home from war and, indeed, with all those who suffer. The good news of Holy Saturday is that God in Christ came to keep vigil with us all, even in the darkness of a tomb and in the depths of hell.

This is a slightly revised chapter from Adam Tietje’s book, Toward a Pastoral Theology of Holy Saturday: Providing Spiritual Care for War Wounded Souls (2018). Used with permission from Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon.


The Reverend Adam D. Tietje is a Th.D. student at Duke Divinity School and served nine years as an active-duty Army chaplain, including a deployment to Afghanistan and assignments with medical and special operations units.


1 Tyler Boudreau, Packing Inferno as quoted in Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 65.

2 This quote is commonly attributed to William Sherman. He may have used it in conversation, but there is no written record, and its origins are uncertain.

3 Often the term veteran is used to mean those who have left active service. By combat veteran, I mean those who have gone to war and come home, including active service members. Thus, I often use soldier and veteran inter-changeably. Moreover, when I use the term soldiers to refer to the class of those who have gone to war and come home, I mean for these references to be inclusive of all branches of military service (i.e., sailors, airmen, and marines).

4 For a close look at our transition with a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division, see Brian Mockenhaupt, “The Last Patrol,” The Atlantic, November 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/the-last-patrol/308266/ (accessed June 14, 2018). His article describes the very last patrol conducted by one of their platoons with one of ours. I took part in this mission, although I moved with a different element. I can personally attest to much of what Mockenhaupt reports.

5 For reporting on this incident and the challenges our battalion faced as we began our mission see Rob Taylor, “Death Comes from Far Away in Afghan Valley,” Reuters, July 19, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-outpost-sniper/death-comes-from-far-away-in-afghan-valley-idUSTRE66J08I20100720 (accessed June 14, 2018).

6 These conversations are documented in my unpublished account of our deployment, “Faith and Doubt in the Arghandab, “ unpublished autobiographical manuscript written during deployment to Afghanistan 2010–2011.

7 For an account of the Bakersfield operation see Paula Broadwell and Vernon Loeb, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (New York: Penguin, 2012). Our battalions efforts were featured prominently in her book about David Petraeus’ leadership in Afghanistan. While the book was clouded in controversy after news of their affair broke, her sections on 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment are a much-appreciated record of what my soldiers did and endured in Afghanistan. By way of capturing a bit of personal history, I met Broadwell while she was in our AO doing interviews with our commander and others. My commander suggested she interview me, given my breadth of experience with our soldiers and across the battlefield. It is probably just as well that the interview never happened.

8 Adam Tietje, “Faith and Doubt in the Arghandab.” The quote from Mother Teresa is found in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007), 241.

9 News of the destruction of these villages was widely reported and widely criticized. As someone who walked through each of those villages in the aftermath, watched as they were rebuilt, and witnessed the renewal of life among the residents of the valley afterward, I tend to side with my commander’s decision. See Spencer Ackerman, “25 Tons of Bombs Wipe Afghan Town Off Map,” Wired, January 19, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/01/25-tons-of-bombs-wipes-afghan-town-off-the-map/ (accessed June 14, 2018) and for my commander’s rebuttal see Ackerman “Why I Flattened Three Afghan Villages,” Wired, February 1, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/02/i-flattened-afghan-villages/ (accessed June 14, 2018).

10 Some misconduct could be easily attributed to negative coping with trauma and the effects of war. Many alcohol-related incidents were simply the result of self-medication gone awry. In addition to any negative coping with war, a number of other unfortunate factors came together during the service of many of my soldiers. The “surges” in both Afghanistan and Iraq required the retention of soldiers whose misconduct would have otherwise demanded separation. Additionally, the bar for entry into service was lowered by the granting of tens of thousands of waivers for soldiers to enlist with misdemeanors, felonies, and histories of significant drug and alcohol abuse. This also coincided with the significant economic downturn of late 2008. See U.S. Army, “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention Report,” 2010, http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/docs/Commanders% 20Tool%20Kit/HPRRSP_Report_2010_v00.pdf (accessed June 14, 2018), 69.

11 Adam Tietje, “Home From the War,” homily given at the memorial service for Sergeant Justin Junkin, Memorial Chapel, Fort Campbell, KY, October 3, 2011.

12 Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence ––from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 33.

13 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-V, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 271. While the DSM-V suggests four primary components to the disorder: re-experiencing painful memories (criterion B), effortful avoidance of trauma cues (criterion C), negative changes in mood and perception (criterion D), and increased arousal (criterion E), Engdahl et al. suggest in a 2010 study that “observed differences in neuronal interactions reflect the re-experiencing component.” See B. Engdahl et al., “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a Right Temporal Lobe Syndrome?” Journal of Neural Engineering 7 (2010): 6. The implication is that avoidance, negative emotions, and increased arousal may simply be derivative of the re-experiencing aspect of PTSD. They connect their findings to studies on the “effects of electrical stimulation of the cortex during brain surgery, namely the elicitation of reliving or re-enacting past experiences . . . These re-enactments are evocative of the flashbacks experienced by patients suffering from PTSD.” See ibid. Perhaps just as remarkable is the fact that these effects, while attenuated, were also observed in subjects in remission. See ibid, 7. Also of note, the DSM-V does include emotions of guilt and shame, a nod to some of the concerns noted by the clinicians who have called for a recognition of moral injury. See DSM-V, 275.

14 Herman, 51, emphasis added.

15 DSM-V, 274-76.

16 Everett Worthingtonand Diane Langberg, “Religious Considerations and Self-Forgiveness in Treating Complex Trauma and Moral Injury in Present and Former Soldiers,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 40 (2012): 276.

17 Brett T. Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 697.

18 Brock and Lettini, xiv.

19 Litz et al., 695–706.

20 Jonathan Shay does an excellent job of bringing the wisdom of those ancient epics into our own time in both Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and Undoing of Character (New York: Scribner, 1994), which draws on the stories of the Iliad, and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (New York: Scribner, 2002), which draws on the stories of the Odyssey. In fact, it is Shay who first uses the term moral injury to describe the moral betrayal of soldiers by their leaders in combat in Achilles in Vietnam.

21I draw out this distinction in “Contra Rambo’s ‘Theology of Remaining’: A Chalcedonian and Pastoral Conception of Trauma,” Pro Ecclesia 28.1 (2019): 22–38.

22 It is important to note that this metaphor does not illuminate all who go to war and come home. It is also important to note, I do not mean for any judgment of the prodigal son’s agency in the parable to be broadly applicable to the agency of combat veterans, in general. The prodigal chooses to demand his inheritance and leave his father for the far country. While soldiers in America’s current volunteer army choose to join, this has not always been, nor may it always be the case. Further, this study makes no judgment of such a choice. Ultimately, my interest in the parable lies in where the son ends up, the far country. How soldiers end up there may be the result of their own agency (e.g., an explicit war crime), or may be the result of circumstances far beyond their choosing (e.g., an ambush set by the enemy).

23 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4/1, trans. T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 157–210.

24 Jesus goes to the far country pro nobis. I do not mean to suggest that American soldiers are sent to the far country on a divine mission. By setting Jesus’ far country journey alongside the far country journey of soldiers, some may be tempted to think the far country analogy runs both ways. It does not. I am in no way endorsing a theology of empire. Indeed, I suspect that for some, moral injury actually occurs at the intersection of the demands of the “liturgy of war” of American civil religion and the demands of religious faith. For more on the “liturgy of war” see Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

25 See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, trans. Aidan Nichols (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990),148–81.  

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Adam D. Tietje
The Reverend Adam D. Tietje is a Th.D. student at Duke Divinity School and served nine years as an active-duty Army chaplain, including a deployment to Afghanistan and assignments with medical and special operations units.

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Most Christians have a basic understanding of the issues that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Yet we all...

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