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What is moral injury?

Moral injury can occur when a personal moral code – one’s understanding of “what’s right” – is violated. Most of us develop this code in childhood based on instructions from parents, teachers and religious leaders.

This sense of morality can incorporate fundamental values of religious and legal doctrines such as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Most of us occasionally stray from what our code says is right, but military service – especially in combat zones – can expose people to situations in which every available choice has morally fraught results.

One combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, for example, shared with my psychology of war class an experience in which he shot and killed a child soldier who was about to fire on his men. He knew he had made the “right” choice, but the responsibility for a child’s death was still a heavy moral burden.

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