War Stories, an open dialogue between military personnel and civilians, returns to the Basalt Library in March. This marks the fifth consecutive year in the series.
“Moral injury” will be the topic for the four-part sessions. This relatively new area of study focuses on the unseen wounds caused by violating one’s moral code, and is limited to moral wounds suffered in a combat setting.
Often confused with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury varies in subtle ways.
Whereas trauma needs to be present in a diagnosis of PTSD, it is not required in the case of moral injury.
Often involving deep guilt and shame, moral injury is a wound to identity and spirit. Such injuries can occur by a soldier perpetrating, bearing witness to, failing to prevent or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.
Moral injury is defined by David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, as a violation of one’s fundamental sense of right and wrong, which often affects members of the military as they transition back to civilian life.
The War Stories series is led by Paul Anderson, who lives “a few miles up the Frying Pan” outside Basalt. He moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1984 from Crested Butte. A man of many hats, he is a writer, a guide for the Aspen Institute, a former editor of the Aspen Times and the founder and executive director of Huts for Vets.
“Civilians don’t often talk to, or know how to talk to, veterans about their service,” Anderson says.
His focus for War Stories is to help bridge the gap in understanding between the two groups.
The group is modeled after the Aspen Institute seminar, has assigned readings and plumbs the depths of the individual’s personal philosophy.
Anderson is also the chief moderator of War Stories.
During the past five years, Anderson witnessed how War Stories has helped a greater understanding emerge between local civilians and veterans.
Former U.S. Army Specialist E4 Ryan Gentry, now with the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s office, agrees.
“I think War Stories does bridge a gap, because each session is generally half-civilian, half-military groups that are curious about what each group did during war and during peace protests,” Gentry says.
Gentry served in multiple roles during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003-2006. At times during his deployment he had less-exciting jobs, such as a “signals guy,” or worked with the 1st Infantry Division Military Public Affairs in Tikrit. When Gentry was working with the “Trailblazers” — an anti-landmine mission operating around Baghdad — or the Quick Reaction Force, the risk of danger increased exponentially.
“They should have these groups everywhere to help new veterans adjust and learn how to interact and speak with their community about how all of the ‘forever wars’ of the last 20 years in the Middle East drag on with no end in sight for seemingly vague reason of ‘global terrorism’,” Gentry says.
War Stories is not limited to those who have suffered moral injury. Regardless of combat experience or not, all veterans are encouraged to participate in the series. Other invisible wounds incurred during military service, such as regret or survivors guilt can also be discussed.
Sgt. Penny Ridley (USAF-Ret.), a longtime resident of Carbondale, spoke with RFWJ about just such an injury and the anger that she felt at losing a colleague during an ambush.
During her time in the Air Force, she was stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where she worked as K9 handler from 1978-79.
Thieves had been using a dry gulch to sneak onto the base grounds at night to steal anything of value for resale. Two intruders were detected on the perimeter and Ridley, along with another gung-ho K9 handler, were ordered to “jack around” (go fully automatic) and “shoot whatever pops up.”
The other K9 handler rushed into the gully, where he was ambushed, stabbed multiple times and suffered mortal wounds. The thieves then used the fallen soldier’s sidearm to shoot his canine before escaping.
However, the dog survived and continued military service.
Ridley rued for years why her fellow soldier didn’t just wait for backup. It was a heavy burden for a 19-year-old Air Force member to handle emotionally.
These are the kinds of experiences that will be discussed in the War Stories series, which will meet on Thursdays in the Basalt Library Community Room. There is a $10 fee for non-veterans. Veterans may enter for free.
Anderson asks for a commitment to the full series and registration is limited to 24 participants. It is required to have read the assigned material prior to the meeting in order to be eligible to join in the conversation.
War Stories will meet 5:30-7 p.m. on March 14 and 21 and April 11 and 25.