For thousands of veterans from our wars going back at least to Vietnam, wounded physically or mentally but who didn’t die, the scars haven’t faded away. With the amputees and disfigured, we can at least see the costly individual sacrifices they made. But that’s not always so for the mentally wounded. 

Just ask Abel Martin, who today manages the Hollywood Veteran’s Center, helping other vets readjust to “normal” life. From personal experience, he knows that’s no piece of cake. The 43-year-old came home from two six-month deployments in the Gulf of Iraq during five years in the U.S. Navy. And his troubles started almost immediately. 

He became severely depressed, lost his family and wound up chronically homeless. He also served three years in prison for a stabbing. 

Martin even went through the program at the center he now runs.

He joined the Navy straight out of high school in 2005. After boot camp, he was assigned to a landing amphibious craft that carried equipment and Marines ready to storm a beach. 

“Even though I wasn’t in combat myself, I did have some traumatic situations while I was in the military,” Martin explained in an interview with Angelus News. “I wish I would have seen a doctor about that.”

One of those situations was the suicide of a soldier in Martin’s own living quarters. He said he once came close to suicide himself, but the thought of his wife and children was enough to stop him. 

“There was a lot of stuff that should have raised flags,” Martin recalled. “When I came home, it was difficult adjusting. You go from having a very structured life, where it’s easy to follow the same routine every day.”

Martin, who now holds a Master’s in Social Work from Cal State Northridge, believes both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury were probably at play during his post-Navy troubled life, as they are in the lives of the many veterans he deals with at his job.

Guilt that won’t go away

Those with a relative or friend suffering from PTSD probably know some of its symptoms: reliving the event over and over, avoiding situations or places that remind the vet what happened in combat, being jittery and always on the alert for danger, as well as radical personality changes. 

Veterans with moral injury might also behave similarly. 

But their wounds are different and go deep to their very moral core, according to researchers, therapists and chaplains. 

While deployed, these hurting vets witnessed or did things they felt profoundly ashamed of. It was an action, or lack of, that shattered what the member of the military had believed about being a good person, carrying on the American way and acknowledging the sanctity of human life. 

It’s a guilt that won’t go away.

“The veteran you’re dealing with in therapy might have some or all of PTSD symptoms,” said Mark Mitchell, co-chair of the Behavioral Health Team of the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative.

The licensed marriage and family therapist has organized workshops on PTSD, moral injury and related subjects at Loyola Marymount University. His last one in May was called “A Soldier’s Heart: Grief and Moral Repair.”

“But when you go deeper, many times moral guilt comes up connected with what they did while deployed,” he explained. “They may have shock-like symptoms, but also moral, ethical issues in addition. So it’s not unusual to have both.”

Modern PTSD treatment often involves “cognitive processing therapy,” where veterans learn skills to understand how trauma changed their thoughts and feelings — and, more importantly, how these feelings and thoughts can be changed back. The goal is for them to see what they did in the military in a new light.

Another related method is called “prolonged exposure.” It involves reliving the trauma over and over until the memories are no longer upsetting and fearful. 

With moral injuries, it’s a different and even more personal kind of therapy. 

“First is self-forgiveness,” Mitchell explained. “But the second thing that research is pointing to is having compassion for yourself, which is quite a bit different than forgiveness. Forgiving is like a onetime event: ‘I screwed up. OK, I forgive myself.’ But I think self-compassion is more of an ongoing process of interrupting shaming thoughts with compassionate thoughts. Things like: ‘We’ll get past this’ or ‘I care, God cares.’ ”

It’s those two things that Mitchell said are especially challenging for veterans, who are trained to respond to challenges with shows of strength. Anything related to guilt or shame, on the other hand, can be interpreted by others as a sign of weakness. 

“It’s learning how to have a relationship with oneself in a compassionate way when one is wounded, and still be strong,” he said. “And that’s a paradox for a soldier: ‘How can I be strong and still be aware of this thing where I may have failed myself or other people and feel shame?’ That’s the tough part. But it’s doable.”

Coming home

Such was the case for Army paratrooper Mitch, who spent 15 months in Iraq as an engineer.

One day he and members of his squad were tearing down a school ISIS had blown up, when a comrade beside him was shot in the face. 

Mitch, who preferred not having his last name mentioned for this article, also said that the experience of coming home was a tougher ordeal than any of the carnage he witnessed in war.

“There’s a way you act and do stuff during war,” he continued. “And if you tell your normal friends back home how you’re feeling or any of the stupid stuff you did, you get looked at like you’re crazy, man. It’s just hard to explain it to anybody. And you just feel alone. You know, you feel like you went over there and did something really, really good. And nobody really understands all that.”

For Mitch, that meant drinking heavily to make himself feel better. That caused an often violent downward spiral which eventually cost him his job as an electrician and landed him at the Hollywood Veteran’s Center while on probation. 

He was stable for two years there, even taking college classes. But then he tried to kill himself, and on his way to the hospital he head-butted a Long Beach police officer accompanying him, splitting the officer’s eyelid open. 

“I think the breaking point for me was being in jail when my son was eight months,” he recalled. 

“And him, you know, reaching for me and hitting the glass between us and not knowing why he couldn’t touch me.”

After his release from jail, Mitch went back to the Hollywood Veteran’s Center, where he works today as a monitor. 

“They saved me,” Mitch said. “They gave me a third chance.”

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