Tom Voss’s unit fired a warning shot, but the truck kept speeding towards them. So they shot to kill. It was Iraq more than 10 years ago, and that’s what they were trained to do.
“I ran up to the passenger’s side and smashed the window open. The guy had two sucking chest wounds,” said Voss, who was a sniper on an 11-month deployment in Iraq in 2004–2005.
Voss said his platoon sergeant slowly walked up while they were frantically trying to save the man’s life and said, “Are we done here?”
On another day, they were alerted to a body on the roadside. “This man was tortured: He had his nose cut off, all his fingers were cut off, his toes were cut off while he was still alive,” Voss said. “He was involved with helping us. That’s what he was killed for.”
Voss recalls the day his platoon sergeant was killed in a blast. “The rocket hit and basically sent shrapnel into his face and neck area,” he said. “This was the father figure we looked up to, he was in charge of us. And now he’s gone. And I sat down and started crying. Why wasn’t it me instead of him?”
Voss returned home in 2005 with a head full of flashbacks and a soul full of pain and contradictions. He was prescribed sleeping pills and antidepressants—which he topped up with alcohol.
“I wasn’t able to know who I was, or connect with myself, or connect with other people,” Voss said. “I was essentially living like I was dead already.”
Voss and fellow Iraq veteran Anthony Anderson are the main characters in the 2016 documentary “Almost Sunrise,” which follows their 2,700-mile walk from Wisconsin to California in a last-ditch effort to save themselves from their invisible torment. The film delves into the postwar veteran experience in a very deep and personal way.
The two men’s pain went beyond post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by symptoms including anxiety, fear, hyperarousal, anger, and flashbacks.
Theirs was a deeper wound that penetrated their self-identity and sense of morality. It’s called moral injury, which is described at the beginning of the film as “a wound to the soul caused by participation in events which violate one’s deeply held sense of right and wrong.”
For example, if you consider yourself a good person and by your definition that means you would not kill another human being, and then you do—regardless of the circumstances—you have to somehow reconcile that within yourself to be able to move on.
Causes of moral injury in war, according to Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project, include using deadly force in combat and causing the harm or deaths of civilians; giving orders in combat that result in the injury or death of a fellow service member; failing to provide medical aid; and following orders that were illegal or immoral.
One of the most pervasive causes of moral injury is a change in belief about the necessity or justification for the war, during or after one’s service. For example, soldiers may sign up thinking they’re protecting the country from terrorism, but once they’re in the combat zone, feel like they are terrorizing the local people.
Moral injury symptoms include profound shame, guilt, betrayal, grief, and alienation.
The Beginning of a Journey
Voss stumbled through almost a decade before he made the decision to walk to California.
“I wanted to face these things, because in 9 years, 10 years, I hadn’t looked at any of that stuff,” he said after a screening at a recent event at the NYU Silver School of Social Work. “I was just plowing through life as best I could.”
Anderson was quick to join Voss on what became known as the Veterans Trek. Anderson had completed two deployments in Iraq, the first in 2004 and the second in 2007, and now his goal was to be a better father and husband.
“Those things that make you a good soldier when you’re fighting in a war, they don’t work well back here. And it’s not as simple as turn it on, turn it off,” Anderson told a group of people at a church picnic in Iowa during the trek.
At the beginning of the film, he explained his coping mechanisms. “It was really hard to get out of bed in the morning because I felt like I was just breaking down. And when I feel that way, I don’t want people around me. So I make it intolerable to be around me.”
A pivotal incident in Iraq that still plagues Anderson occurred on a day the unit was delayed leaving the base because the gate was being attacked.
When they eventually drove slowly out through the gate, they saw some injured people on the ground. Anderson asked his superior if they could stop and help them, but he was told no.
“That’s always bothered me quite a bit—that I had the ability to help, and I didn’t because I was told not to,” Anderson said.
“It was that day that changed my whole perspective on everything—what I was doing, what I was a part of, what we as a collective were doing.”
It Takes a Community to Heal a Warrior
Ed Tick, a psychotherapist who has worked with veterans for 40 years, estimates that 90 percent suffer from moral injury. There are 18.8 million veterans in the United States, according to 2015 American Community Survey data.
Tick is co-founder of New York-based Soldier’s Heart, an organization through which he runs healing retreats. And in 2012, he trained the entire chaplain corps of the U.S. Army and Air National Guard, over 3,000 troops.
Tick says the prescription for healing PTSD and moral injury is to focus on spirituality within the whole community, not just among veterans.
“We have to do really deep, hard spiritual work together,” he said.
Tick takes a community approach to his retreats and taps into traditional ways of helping warriors return from war.
He allows anyone to join the retreats, but it’s predominantly veterans and their families. Tick has the civilians at retreats say to the veterans: “You are our warriors, you acted in my name under my commands, with me paying the bill, and you served in my place so I didn’t have to. So I willingly lift the burden of responsibility off you alone, and I put it on my shoulders and return it to our nation where it belongs.”
“And when we do that, the warriors and civilians just break down into tears and fall into each other’s arms and cry with great, great relief over this. It changes their lives,” Tick said.
Tick shared a story about a World War II veteran who was ordered to kill three German soldiers his unit had captured. He argued and argued to spare their lives—they were young, scared, and unarmed—but his commander didn’t budge and told this veteran to take the prisoners behind a barn and shoot them.
“This poor, sweet man was only able to talk about this when he turned 90, and he carried this his entire life. And blamed himself, of course,” Tick said.
As part of the atonement and restitution aspects that help veterans heal their bruised souls, Tick takes veterans to Vietnam. Over 16 previous trips, they have built two schools and about six homes for very poor people, including disabled veterans and Agent Orange victims.
“It’s much easier to forgive themselves when atonement is involved,” Tick said. Traditionally, soldiers join up to preserve and protect, but war makes them cause death and destruction. So when they can return to feeling like a preserver and protector, “it lifts the moral stain, it gives them a new identity, it affirms their original reasons and spiritual reasons for being a warrior.”
A Brief Encounter in Nebraska
Anderson, now 33, agrees that community involvement is paramount for veterans when they return home.
“I think it’s important for non-veterans to know they are part of the healing,” he said. “That is their role in the war.”
And it comes in many forms.
It was a brief interaction with a stranger on a highway in Nebraska that shifted something profound in Anderson.
A man pulled over while he and Voss were walking. The man chatted for a couple of minutes, mentioning that his brother died in Vietnam, and gave them $20 before they parted ways.
“I started to think about how his brother died in Vietnam,” Anderson said. “His brother’s death has affected him for 40 years, so much so that he’ll seek Tom and I out—two complete strangers on the side of the road—to help us how he can.
“And it was in that moment that I started to recognize how much war permeates families and people—even though they haven’t experienced it firsthand.”
Anderson intends to teach his daughter lessons he learned from the Iraq War.
“She won’t know explicitly they’re from the Iraq War, but she’ll teach her kids, and they’ll teach their kids. And there will be generations of my family that I will never meet that will be absolutely impacted by the Iraq War,” he said.
“That was a big turning point for me, to know I’m not waiting this out until it goes away and ends. This war will never end, it will always be with me.
“So what do I want to do with it? Do I try to help people, do I try to move beyond it? Or do I want to put my finger on the self-destruct button and wrap it up and call it a day?”
Anderson chose to help other veterans. He organizes nature walks and wants to undertake some longer walks with veterans, too.
Anderson doesn’t experience the bouts of “super anger” that used to take him out for days or weeks at a time.
“But I still have a lot of anger and guilt … and I still have problems sleeping,” he said. “The PTSD wakes me up in the middle of the night, and the moral injury is what stops me from falling asleep in the first place. My brain never stops on that stuff. I think about it every day.”
Voss’s first big shift took longer than the walk from Wisconsin to California.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that after the walk, I knew I still had a long road of healing ahead of me. By no means did I think that I was better,” he said.
Voss subsequently went to Aspen, Colorado, to join a Power Breath Meditation workshop via Project Welcome Home Troops (PWHT). The power breath is an ancient practice capable of unlocking and releasing trauma.
“At first I really didn’t take it too seriously when they said a lot of stuff can come up,” Voss said.
Research on the PWHT website suggests breathing is a critical tool because it is both voluntary (i.e. holding one’s breath) and involuntary (i.e. breathing during sleep), which means it can help balance the nervous system and promote relaxation.
And because breathing and emotions are tightly linked, “controlled patterns of breathing thus can serve as powerful tools to impact and shift emotional states,” the website states.
During the workshop, Voss was taken to see Father Thomas Keating, a renowned Trappist monk who has counseled veterans since WWII.
“One of the things Father Keating said was veterans aren’t able to forgive themselves,” Voss said.
“And this really hit me in the chest like a ton of bricks. That was it for me. It never crossed my mind to forgive myself.
So when we did one of the last sessions together, I went in with the intention that I was going to forgive myself and forgive God.”
Immediately following the session, Voss broke down and began to cry.
“It felt like a ball of emotion, starting from my stomach, moving all the way up my chest into my throat and coming out as tears,” he said. “Whatever I was holding onto, by just forgiving myself, by just not blaming anyone else for what had happened while I was deployed, and saying, ‘You know, it happened.’ I literally just said, ‘I forgive you God, this was not your fault.’ And that triggered something inside of me that just came out, and after that I felt completely like a different person.
“I feel like I know what happy feels like for the first time.”
National Suicide Hotline
Veterans Crisis Line
1-800-273-8255, press 1
Stop Soldier Suicide
A national civilian not-for-profit dedicated to preventing active duty and Veteran suicide
Reviews of services and organizations for veterans
Healing retreats for veterans, their families, the community
Project Welcome Home Troops
Safe and effective techniques for stress relief, greater health and well-being, and empowerment
The Mission Continues
Helps veterans who are adjusting to life at home through community impact
Team Red, White, and Blue
Connects veterans to their community through physical and social activity
Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL)
Provides health care and support to veterans while they integrate into college and university campuses
New York contact: Yvette.Branson@va.gov
VITAL Initiative website
What You Can Do
- Talk to a veteran. Anderson’s advice is to encourage veterans to talk, but don’t push them. Ask them about the good stuff and stay away from politics. “If all they want to talk about is the food, let them. Listen to them. Don’t judge them. Don’t politicize it. If they say something negative about the war, or politics, just let it be,” Anderson said.
- Create and support groups that bring veterans together, as well as those that bring the community together.
- Support the Veterans Wellness Act, which advocates for expanded access to integrative therapies and wellness activities.
- Help organize a group screening of “Almost Sunrise” in a school, community group, or workplace. Email AlmostSunrise@filmsprout.org