As part of the NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War initiative, Milwaukee-area veterans are using humanities materials and multi-sensory techniques to explore the moral injuries of war. Katinka Hooyer and her collaborators developed The Warrior’s Path: Moral Injury, War, and Reclaiming the Soul from many years of research exploring the shortcomings of post-traumatic stress disorder as the dominant narrative of the personal cost of war. The program seeks to create a communal space where veterans can explore moral injury themselves, then prepare to discuss the moral impact of war with the public and thus foster a civic dialogue to expand understanding of war’s costs.
Moral injury refers to the experiences of having witnessed, perpetrated, or been a victim of actions that go against one’s core values. These experiences can result in feelings of guilt, shame, betrayal, anger and remorse that negatively impact Veterans’ ability to heal from war. Veteran-to-veteran discussion groups explore the topic through poetry, Shakespearean plays, and graphic novels. The veterans then move deeper into their own experiences with moral injury, then prepare those veterans who are comfortable doing so to engage in public discussions. Public discussions have included veterans hosting three radio shows to discuss themes that emerged from their dialogues and performances of their own poetry works inspired by the discussion groups at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Public engagement efforts have also specifically focused on the Medical College of Wisconsin from which the program is hosted. Veterans taught classes for medical students, exploring themes like racism in the medical establishment as experienced by Black veterans returning from the Vietnam War, and collaborative readings of Shakespeare scenes focused on connections between moral injuries faced by both physicians and veterans. Dr. Hooyer noted that, “what’s really cool is that we use the humanities content as a bridge for physicians in training. One thing that I hear in my research and my community programming from veterans is, ‘well, therapists physicians, psychologists, they don’t understand us.’ So this was really an opportunity for veterans to tell their story and for medical students to gain a broader understanding of veterans’ experiences.”