Indirect relations between transgressive acts and general combat exposure and moral injury

Sheila B. Frankfurt, Patricia Frazier, Brian Engdahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Introduction: Moral injury describes the deleterious effects of acts of commission (e.g., killing noncombatants), omission (e.g., failing to prevent a massacre), or betrayal (i.e., by a trusted authority figure) during military service that transgress accepted behavioral boundaries and norms. Transgressive acts are proposed to lead to a guilt- and shame-based syndrome consisting of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, demoralization, self-handicapping, and self-injury. In this study, we tested a frequently cited model of moral injury and assessed the associations between potentially transgressive acts, moral injury outcomes, and guilt and fear. Additionally, we sought to clarify the relative contribution of transgressive and nontransgressive/general combat exposure to moral injury. On the basis of previous research and theory, we anticipated that the transgressive acts would be related to outcomes through guilt and that nontransgressive combat exposure would be related to outcomes through fear. Materials and Methods: Secondary analysis was conducted on data from a sample of combat-exposed male veterans at a Midwestern Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center (N = 190) who participated in a larger parent study on postdeployment readjustment. Structural equation modeling was used to test the pathways from transgressive and nontransgressive combat exposure to PTSD symptoms and suicidality through combat-related guilt and combat-related fear. The institutional review boards of the Midwestern VA medical center and the university of the affiliated researchers approved the study. Results: In total, 38% (n = 72) of the sample reported a potentially transgressive act as one of their three worst traumatic events. The most common potentially transgressive act was killing an enemy combatant (17%; n = 32). In structural equation modeling analyses. potentially transgressive acts were indirectly related to both suicidality (β = 0.09, p < 0.01) and PTSD symptoms (β = 0.06, p < 0.05) through guilt. General combat exposure was indirectly related to PTSD through fear, β = 0.19, p < 0.01. Combat exposure was not directly or indirectly related to suicidality. Conclusion: Overall, these findings suggest that veterans with a history of potentially transgressive acts may present to the VA with a constellation of symptoms that are associated with combat-related guilt. Transgressive acts were identified using a qualitative approach, allowing a broader sampling of this domain. Results were limited by the use of self-report data and by gathering data from participants who were Veterans seeking compensation and pension evaluations for PTSD. The clinical implications suggest that focusing on fear-related outcomes and ignoring guilt- and shame-based reactions may lead to an incomplete case conceptualization. Clinicians working with veterans with moral injury are encouraged to prepare themselves for the discomfiting therapeutic experiences of bearing witness to and empathizing with clients’ memories of their actions, which may include atrocities. Effective and empathic treatments that address the guilt and shame associated with transgressive acts are needed to adequately care for returning veterans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e1950-e1956
JournalMilitary medicine
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Sheila B. Frankfurt is currently at the VISN 17 Center for Excellence on Returning War Veterans and Texas A & M Health Science Center. Her work is supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs Minneapolis Health Care System, the Office of Academic Affiliations Advanced Fellowship Program in Mental Illness Research and Treatment, the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, and the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans.

Publisher Copyright:
© Association of Military Surgeons of the U.S. All rights reserved.


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