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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

    “In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  […] I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt.” 

    Steve Dundas, “Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing”, 2013
    US Army Chaplain Corps logo, featuring a white dove holding a book which says 'Pro Deo et Patria' ('for God and for the Nation').

    Navy Commander Steve Dundas returned from his 2008 deployment to Iraq wounded in mind and spirit. A chaplain attached to Marine Corps and Army advisors working directly with the burgeoning Iraqi security apparatus, Dundas’ role took him across the country and brought him into contact with a part of the war that Americans, even those serving in Iraq, were often shielded from. Dundas was forced to reconcile difficult and contradictory moral truths: the real hopes for a better future held by Iraqis and the utter devastation brought on by the US invasion, the damage inflicted by bombing campaigns that targeted infrastructure that even coalition war plans had deemed essential to Iraq’s recovery, and countless injuries to civilian children. His deployment over, Dundas was left to return home “broken, his faith in God and in his country shattered.” [1] It was only over the course of two years, with the help of therapists, friends, and what Dundas labelled his “Christmas Miracle” that he began to recover from the moral wounds of war. This narrative, written on the fourth anniversary of his spiritual recovery from Iraq, reflects on Dundas’ journey as a veteran and a chaplain and offers a poignant window into one man’s search for internal peace after conflict. 

    Visualising Peace with ‘Wounded Peace-Makers’

    My investigation into visualising peace through the lens of recovering from moral injuries has highlighted the centrality of reframing one’s experiences in the search for internal peace. One study conducted by the Australian Journal of Veteran Studies, for instance, broke down the process of moving forward from moral injury events into three key strands. They included: meaning-making, where servicemembers manage and accept their “new normal”; narratives of transformation, which emphasize the need to reclaim and repurpose one’s experiences to continue moving through life despite suffering from moral injury; and the process of “leading the charge”, whereby individuals process of inspiring others to follow through treacherous moral terrain. 

    The reason I selected Dundas’ writing is that it serves not only as a story of re-establishing internal and spiritual peace after morally injurious events but also as a profound narrative of transformation. Dundas’ healing began not by seeking to absolve himself of responsibility for his participation in the conflict nor in attempting to forget the entirety of his deployment in Iraq; rather, his inner peace stemmed from deliberately confronting and, indeed, embracing of the root cause of his moral injury, and then repurposing of those experiences for the benefit of others. In this sense, Dundas’ story is evocative of the concept of “wounded healers”, a term coined by Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who Dundas himself quotes in his post. Nouwen writes: 

    “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” [2]

    Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 1972

    Nouwen focuses on the notion of serving as a “wounded healer”, but I feel that the term ‘wounded peace-makers’ is equally applicable here. The peace I write of, however, refers not to a macro-level end in which violence and conflict are abolished within states and societies but rather small-scale personal peace. Through this lens, the value of individuals such as Steve Dundas lies in their ability to employ their personal experience with moral injury to enable others to reclaim their sense of humanity and morality and, in doing so, re-establish the inner peace that war so violently rips away. 

    What Do You Think?

    • Has this concept of the “wounded healer” or “wounded peace-maker” altered your understanding of the actors involved in peace and peace-building? 
    • What relationship do you see between personal post-conflict recovery and wider processes of peace-making or peace-building?
    • Are individuals recovering from physical, psychological, moral, or spiritual trauma better-positioned to serve as peace-makers than others?
    • What role do you envision spirituality and religious faith playing in post-conflict recovery and peace-building? 

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also like Moral Injury: Healing, Journey for Forgiveness, Story #1913 and other items with the tag ‘Moral Peace‘.

    Mathias Katsuya, April 2022


    [1] Wood, David, “Moral Injury: The Grunts”, The Huffington Post, March 18, 2014, https://projects.huffingtonpost.com/projects/moral-injury/the-grunts 

    [2] Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer. 1972. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd 

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