2018 Features Spring 2018

Army chaplain Jeff Matsler ’93 helps veterans work through ‘moral injury’

Near the military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.ear the military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina – the Army’s largest – there are several dozen Army-Navy stores. They sell the usual used military equipment and also T-shirts with the logos of the various forces. But to Perkins School of Theology alumnus and U.S. Army Major Jeff Matsler ’93, another shirt stands out. It’s popular with soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan. Black T-shirt. White Gothic letters. One word: “Guilty.”
Matsler says choosing the “Guilty” shirt reflects the shame and alienation many soldiers returning from combat areas bear because they took actions “that can violate their moral code, their paradigm of what is right.”
A chaplain and the Army’s Bioethicist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Matsler says, “It’s a volunteer Army. Most young soldiers in the infantry units and on the front lines will tell you they signed up to serve God and country. They are very patriotic.” But to succeed as soldiers, they are trained to follow orders, and that can mean taking lives, sometimes those of unintended targets such as civilians.
For more than a decade, Matsler has made it his mission to study “moral injury,” a condition associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which combat soldiers understand themselves to be morally deficient. They return not only psychologically and emotionally battered but also spiritually injured.
Soldiers need forgiveness and redemption.
In light of the 2016 Veterans Affairs report that on average more than 20 veterans died daily from suicide in 2014, Matsler’s work is extremely important. In November 2017, the PBS series POV debuted “Almost Sunrise” focusing on the issue of “moral injury,” defining it as “a wound to the soul inflicted by violating one’s own ethical code.”
Matsler grew up working on his family’s farm in Floydada, a small rural community in West Texas. As a high school freshman, he attended a United Methodist Church summer camp where he first encountered Connie Nelson, then a youth counselor and now Perkins School director of public affairs and alumni/ae relations.
“I had the opportunity to watch Jeff grow in size, stature, maturity and faith,” Nelson says. “I remember particularly a workshop that I led one summer on discernment, listening for God’s voice and Christian vocation. At the conclusion of the workshop, Jeff came up to my co-leader and me to tell us he felt called to ministry. He was only 17 or 18, but it was clear that he had heard God’s ‘still small voice.’”
Jeff Matsler outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he serves a a chaplain and the Army’s bioethicist.He graduated from high school and set off for McMurry University, a Methodist institution in Abilene, Texas, where he was first exposed to the field of bioethics by his philosophy professor and mentor, Joseph Stamey, who received his Ph.D. in medical ethics. Matsler recalls thinking as an undergraduate, “What on earth would be debatable about medical ethics?!”
After earning a B.A. degree in history and religious studies with a minor in philosophy in 1989 from McMurry, Matsler attended Perkins Theology, where he encountered professors such as Joseph L. Allen, now professor emeritus of ethics, and the late Frederick S. Carney, professor emeritus of moral theology and Christian ethics whose background also was in medical ethics. “The theological training I received at Perkins has grounded me to this day,” he says.
Matsler represents the third generation of his family to graduate from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. His grandfathers, the late Dr. Charles E. Lutrick ’49 and Cyrus Barcus ’27, ’33 (also founding director of the Mustang Band), both attended Perkins and became Methodist ministers. His uncle, the Rev. Dr. Robert C. Monk ’54, is one of many SMU and Perkins alumni who taught at McMurry.
After graduating from Perkins in 1993, Matsler entered the ministry as an associate pastor at Polk Street United Methodist Church in Amarillo. During his three years there, he also served as a staff clinician for the substance abuse unit at the Amarillo Veterans Affairs Medical Center. His time at the VA convinced Matsler he could provide much-needed ministry in service to his country with the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.
In 1995, while Matsler waited to go on active duty, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Matsler went to participate in rescue efforts, provide stress debriefings and minister to victims of the tragedy and to teams searching for survivors. The emotional wreckage he encountered in Oklahoma sparked his interest in and thinking about how traumatic events can wreck the soul.
Matsler says there were two issues in Oklahoma City that made it a significant magnet for moral injury among those involved in the rescue effort: The first was the overwhelming sense of horror that accompanies any disaster relief effort – particularly if it is man-made. “My first day at OKC consisted of helping the team searching for survivors, realizing that we had entered the building’s nursery and debriefing the team afterward. No young soldier – not even a seasoned veteran – is ever emotionally prepared to deal with that type of carnage.”
One of the key elements of moral injury is a sense of betrayal felt by the individual or group members involved in such an event. “The significant issue at OKC became clear on day five when we learned that those responsible were not only Americans (Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier) but also veterans – a feeling of betrayal that grew as we also learned they were combat vets. Moral injury isn’t just over things done, but also things observed – things you didn’t or couldn’t prevent,” Matsler says.
He went on active duty in 1996 as a battalion chaplain with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and served until 2000, when an injury led to a medical discharge. After serving as Senior Chaplain at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and then pastor at First United Methodist Church in Panhandle, Texas, Matsler returned to active duty in 2007.
During the past 10 years Matsler has served several tours of duty in Afghanistan as brigade chaplain. While one duty included presiding over liturgical services in Bagram (2008–09) and another in Kandahar (2013), the main effort of his ministry consisted of traveling around the country counseling with soldiers and providing mentoring and oversight for the battalion chaplains in his unit’s footprint. It was while ministering to soldiers in combat zones that Matsler began to understand what “moral injury” truly meant.
Doctors ask, “Soldiers on the front line need to hear the message of forgiveness and redemption,” he says. “More than anything, they need to hear that no matter what you’ve done, where you’ve been, what you’ve done in the service of your country, whatever act you had to do – whether it was right or wrong – God still loves you. There is nothing we can do that can separate us from the love of Christ and restoring us to who he intended us to be.”
Between postings to Afghanistan, Matsler’s commander at Fort Bragg asked him to gain advanced education to support his chaplaincy duties. He enrolled in the Master of Theological Studies program at Duke University Divinity School in nearby Durham and focused on ethics. He continued to study combat trauma and its effect on rebuild-ing character when he earned a Master of Sacred Theology degree in bioethics in 2015 from Yale Divinity School.
His 2012 thesis, “Post Traumatic Saint,” looks at the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and his experiences as a combat veteran and prisoner of war during the early 13th century. Francesco Bernardone was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, and, as did so many of his childhood friends, he became a seasoned professional soldier and officer. By his 22nd birthday, he had gained over six years of grueling combat experience. In 1202, he helped lead a military expedition against the neighboring city-state of Perugia. One of only 12 survivors, he became a prisoner of war and spent a year in captivity. After his release, Francis had a spiritual conversion and began experiencing visions. He eventually rejected his wealthy family and embraced a life of poverty and isolation, and he made it his mission to restore the chapel at San Damiano, where the icon of the crucified Christ told him to repair the ruined church.
Matsler argues that Francis’ actions – hearing voices, seeing visions, isolating himself from family and avoiding community – constitute behaviors that when encountered today would be symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Looking for release from his pain, Francis eventually found it in the community of fellow veterans, he says.
Although his research on Francis informs Matsler’s approach to moral injury, it was his training at Perkins that taught Matsler to find in stories the truth being shared. “What does it mean when Jesus walked on water? I try to apply that same understanding when a veteran comes in and tells me something that sounds far-fetched. What do you do with that guy who claims that a cross came to life or that God spoke to him in the middle of the night? Initially I just listen and affirm what I hear them saying. It’s way too easy to discount their stories. My goal is to get nonveterans to take seriously what they hear veterans say,” Matsler adds.
Jeff Matsler teaching medical ethics at Walter Reed in 2016.Speaking to conferences throughout the country about aspects of moral injury and spiritual recovery, Matsler distinguishes between the standard approach to healing and the early Franciscan model he advocates. “The way we deal with PTSD now is through talk therapy and pharmacology. It can eliminate the physical pain but it cannot restore joy.”
In contrast, the early Franciscans sat in the community of other veterans and talked about their experiences and how their actions harmed others and them-selves. Matsler says of soldiers, “By owning their actions they can move to a stage of forgiveness, and restore joy.”
As the Army’s bioethicist, he works with Walter Reed’s medical personnel to help determine what decisions are best for a patient. He says, “Doctors ask, ‘What can we do?’ A bioethicist asks, ‘What should we do?’”
Matsler also provides insights on medical experimentation conducted by the Department of Defense involving human subjects, such as the testing of Ebola and Zika vaccines before any public use.
The medical center also works with amputees and researches new methods for improving prosthetics. “After soldiers have sustained injuries in service to their country, we want to ensure that they don’t just exist but have a quality of life,” Matsler says. “My job is to advise in such a way that we not do something that might cause undue harm now while trying to find a better way for them in the future.”
Matsler also teaches medical ethics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Defense’s medical school in Bethesda. He says this connects him back to his time at SMU: “I am now seeking to do for others what professors Allen and Carney did for me at Perkins.”
Susan White ’05