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Conference to Address 'Soul Repair' for Veterans

RALEIGH -- On Thursday and Friday, Raleigh will host a first-ever conference aimed at treating veterans with wounds no bandage can cover: those in their souls.

The two-day forum is an attempt to bring light to "moral injury," a condition organizers say comes from making difficult decisions under fire -- ones that might violate personal moral codes under normal circumstances. Such injuries show up as survivor guilt, grief or shame, and they can stay bottled up for decades.

Greg Brown, a retired Army chaplain and a conference organizer from Durham, offered the example of soldiers who have been asked to fire at children carrying bombs.

"You're sometimes asked to betray the things you grew up with," he said, "things that are morally and ethically right. This has never been tackled before. We do this simply by having the understanding -- the deep listening ear we are taught in soul repair."

Co-sponsored by the N.C. Council of Churches, Quaker House, the Soul Repair Center in Texas and numerous North Carolina churches, the conference features both speakers who can explain the concept of moral injury and veterans who have experienced it. The N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs is also involved.

Organizers point out that moral injury is different from post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that follows the threat of injury or death.

"PTSD is something you're reacting to -- a stimulus, a bomb that went off," said Bob Kennel, an organizer for the event with Covenant Christian Church in Cary. "Moral injury comes from the inside-out, from you having done something that goes against the grain."

Kennel was motivated to participate as an Air Force veteran, though he did not suffer anything he describes as a moral injury. He was also moved to get involved through a chance contact. While working at a church yard sale not long ago, he met a woman whose husband attempted suicide in front of her, largely because of his experiences in the Vietnam War.

"He now has a double moral injury," Kennel said, adding that he has encouraged them both to speak at the conference this week.

The Soul Repair Center, which opened in 2012 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, was designed to research recovery from extreme distress. The center also trains congregations and seminaries to provide veterans with their spiritual needs.

Raleigh was chosen for the conference, he said, because of North Carolina's military bases and the high number of veterans living in the state.

For Brown, moral injury can only be addressed in a church setting. An associate minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, he plans to hold monthly meetings for veterans after this week's soul repair conference.

"One of the greatest things that is happening here is folks who are suffering moral injury are able to tell their story," he said. "You have to deal with these issues that nobody really wants to talk about."

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