Beyond PTSD: Iraq Veteran Confronts the Spiritual Toll of War

NW PA Counties graphicThe Northwest Pennsylvania (NW PA) Veteran Suicide Prevention Program operates on a three-pronged approach involving healthcare providers, community organizations, and Veterans and their families in the 15 counties of NW PA. On November 16, 2022 a Veterans’ Discussion community event was held at Passavant Community in Zelienople, PA. Sponsored by Lutheran Senior Life, Aspire Wellness, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU), the event featured Marine Corps Veteran Lee Wagner, who is a member of the program implementation staff. The primary discussion topic for the event was highlighting supportive environments for Veterans to encourage social connectedness.

The event received media coverage from The Butler Eagle and their article is included below. A pdf is also available to download. If you or an organization you represent would like to partner with us for community outreach activities, please contact us.

Read time: 5 minutes

By Chris Kopacz, Butler Eagle Staff Writer

lee at passavantZELIENOPLE — Many people who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces find themselves charged with commands that challenge their beliefs. In the case of Lee Wagner, who deployed to Iraq as a Marine Corps sergeant in 2003, his very arrival led to an unforeseen dread. “When we were entering into Iraq, the first few hours, few days of entering into Iraq, there was a lot of children along the side of the road,” he said. “We were kind of driving through there, and one particular young Iraqi girl was standing on the side of the road, very much crying,” he said. “And I don’t know why she was crying. I don’t know if something really bad just happened in her life, or if she just stubbed her toe. I don’t know.” “But just the wherewithal of the situation hit me there,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m here to do a good thing. I want to do good things, but I’m now witnessing firsthand the possible negative impact of what we’re doing,” he said.

For many service members, moral injury could result from acting on orders from military commanders and political leaders whose ethics don’t align with theirs, who might compel them to make choices that cross a moral line for them, Wagner said. “The military is a violent industry,” he said. “The Department of Defense has a mission. Fight battles. Win wars.” “Whatever gets broken, somebody else will fix,” he said. That mission differs from the same one the Veteran Affairs Department, chaplains and other civic leaders have, he said. The problem of moral injury often contributes heavily to the problem of suicide. Wagner, who works for the Northwestern Pennsylvania Veterans Suicide Prevention Program, said people die by suicide mainly because they believe suicide is the only solution to their problem. Their problem, he said, often involves a long story, and while moral injury does play a role in that, so do a range of other factors, including mental health conditions like depression. Wagner also said military sexual assault trauma often causes a kind of moral injury, too.

“Having a leadership that doesn’t stand up for you, or leadership that creates an environment where sexual harassment is allowed to take place — that is very much a moral injury that we can see within the military community.” But veterans and families can find help for moral injury in a variety of forms, he said. They can seek clinical treatments at VA clinics and other forms of therapy,
spiritual treatments (which can involve religion but also do not need to) and community-based treatments, he said. Several community based services for veterans enrich Butler County. This
includes the VA Butler Health Care system based on New Castle Road in Butler Township. “What the VA does offer is a variety of physical and mental health, as well access to chaplaincy, and
psychology and therapy that can work with this,” he said. “Within community you have camaraderie, men and women who have served,” he said. Throughout Butler County, he said, numerous Veteran of Foreign War outposts, American League offices and Marine Corps Leagues also enrich the region.

Looking to Get Involved?

friends standing togetherWhether you identify as a healthcare provider, community organization, or Veteran, there are several opportunities through the NW PA Veteran Suicide Prevention Program and PERU to connect to resources, participate in educational training, and promote harm reduction strategies. We are actively recruiting healthcare and community partners to work with us in meeting our goals and objectives. To learn more, visit the program website at

Need Help? Know Someone Who Does? Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat. Both are free and confidential. You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor in your area.

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