Dr. Daniel Roberts is engaged in a vital life-saving mission. This active-duty Army religious affairs specialist is also known as Sgt. Maj. Roberts. In addition to his day job, he is the founder and CEO of an organization he named MISNS, or Moral Injury Support Network for Servicewomen, Inc. To unpack this name, moral injury refers to what happens to someone who experiences a traumatic event that shakes them to their core. It deeply violates that person’s sense of what is right and wrong. Moral injury can result from someone committing an act that feels wrong to them, but it can also result from witnessing horrible things, or from the trauma of bad things being done to them.
Dr. Roberts has committed himself to serving female veterans who have experienced moral injury. Some women have experienced combat or were drone pilots, but the majority suffered moral injury because of their gender. Many servicewomen survived military sexual trauma. They were hazed, experienced extreme disrespect and sexual harassment, or were even raped. These brave women joined the military to serve our country and felt that the military was a high and honorable calling. They felt loyalty to and love for the organization and felt bad questioning and reporting what had happened to them. The command climate was hostile to them, and their reports of military sexual trauma were often not taken seriously. Sometimes the perpetrators were their teammates, or even their commanding officers. The emotions of guilt and shame affected the servicewomen so that they then experienced the effects of anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness.
How did Dr. Roberts come to offer counseling and support to morally injured women? In 2015, as a chaplain in the US military, he had just finished his dissertation focused on chaplain support to wounded military women. He noticed that certain issues women faced were not being addressed, that women were not being supported, and moreover, they often didn’t feel comfortable talking to male chaplains. Then he heard Dr. Harold Koenig from Duke University give a talk on moral injury at Fort Bragg, and this solidified his interest in and sensitivity to this issue. Realizing that this was a brand-new field, and that there was a scarcity of research on moral injury and women, he knew that he had found his calling.
He established a non-profit to do research and educate care providers like psychologists, social workers, public health practitioners, and military chaplains, so that they could learn about moral injury and how it affects women. His organization also provides direct support through a network of female chaplains.
What Dr. Roberts has learned through his research is that sexual assault, gender harassment, and a misogynistic work environment were very common among the 50 women in his first research study. Lower ranking soldiers often showed extreme disrespect to their superior female officers, saying, “I don’t care what your rank is, I’m not listening to you.” Yet, in spite of what had happened to them, these women had a great love and loyalty to the military and felt that they were betraying this institution by reporting their negative experiences. During Dr. Roberts’s interviews with them, these women felt a catharsis, even though talking about and reliving events was triggering, painful, and difficult to express. They all said, “If my story benefits someone else, I’m willing to tell it.” Despite feeling that they had been betrayed by the military on some levels, they were still committed to the ethos of making sacrifices for their teammates.
Dr. Roberts approaches his role as a counselor with no limits on the number of counseling sessions he will do, or the length of a session. Although the VA and hospitals limit encounters they can offer clients, he feels it’s important for him to hear the women’s stories, however long it takes. During the storytelling process he asks probing questions, so that he can alleviate guilt and shame, help women restore their sense of self-worth, and recover their true identity. He helps them to see alternative perspectives, and listens for themes, the kinds of things that are making them feel lost and disempowered. Many may be overcome by guilt and feel they can never get forgiveness for their sins.
Women who have been sexually assaulted become very isolated, avoiding attention, often trying to fit in with the guys. They feel that they should have prevented what happened to them. They may feel guilt and shame and try to hide their bodies and their sexuality. Dr. Roberts offers these women alternative ideas. He tells them “You never expected this to happen. At a time when you were most vulnerable, this person whom you trusted as a friend attacked you and assaulted you. The person who should feel guilty is the attacker, not you.”
Even for the perpetrators of moral injury, those who violated their own morals in a moment of weakness, Dr. Roberts offers forgiveness. He tells them, “Let’s admit that was wrong and we shouldn’t have done it, but how do we move past that?” He feels that people should have a decent life, and he wants to help them to see things in a different way and move forward with optimism and joy.
Through conferences that Dr. Roberts and MISNS have sponsored, he has become a part of a moral injury community of interest that meets once a month. Through these contacts he has spoken and presented at several conferences, including the Canadian Multi-Faith Forum last month. Through these conferences and connections, Dr. Roberts has become part of a caring group that aims to help people physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The US Army recognizes that spirituality is a component of holistic fitness, and faith is a part of spirituality across all religious traditions. To Dr. Roberts, faith means a belief and a reliance on something greater than yourself, things like the goodness of the world and the goodness of people. He believes that chaplains are part of a multidisciplinary approach that enlists practitioners like psychologists, social workers, and medical doctors to give care to morally injured servicewomen.
Dr. Roberts credits a book called Counseling Women (Neuger, Augsburg Fortress, 2001) with his adoption of an approach called narrative counseling. When a woman tells her story he comes alongside her and journeys with her instead of treating her as an object and telling her what she needs to do. He tells her, “There’s nothing wrong with you, but you’re having a problem. Let’s see if we can work on it together and help you feel better.” He is a person she can bounce ideas off, and he will offer her alternative perspectives that she can choose, use, own and work through for herself.
Dr. Roberts formed a network, the Tubman Chaplain Network, of unaffiliated female chaplains who have their own counseling approaches. Many women don’t feel comfortable approaching a male chaplain with their stories, the chaplain is in this person’s chain of command, they don’t trust him, or they are no longer in the military and don’t know whom to approach. Some say, “My chaplain is too young and doesn’t know anything. He is more interested in jumping out of airplanes than helping soldiers.” The Tubman chaplains offer free service within 24 hours and are available through the https://chaplainconsultants.com website.
Discussing the life-altering and negative consequences morally injured female veterans face, Dr. Roberts says that many of them are completely isolated with PTSD-like symptoms and triggers. Anxiety, depression, inability to focus, migraines, insomnia, and loss of the desire or ability to have relationships are common results. Many question how God could let this happen to them. They might have lost their faith or are angry. Their previous experiences with faith and God did not prepare them for this. One woman said, “Well, I’m not really an atheist, but I’m pretty pissed at God right now.”
In addition to coordinating the Tubman Chaplain Network, a new research study Dr. Roberts is involved with along with Thomas Jefferson University is looking at moral injury involving the spouses of servicemembers with PTSD. Men (and some women) servicemembers come back from multiple deployments with severe PTSD that can traumatize their spouses and children. Marriages have been lost because of it. Very little care and support is being provided to these people. They often contemplate or even commit suicide.
Looking to the future, Dr. Roberts is always considering how to further the reach of MISNS. “Who do we need to partner with? What organizations do we need to join with to meet this need?” Collaboration with other stakeholder groups and nonprofits is desirable as the need is so great. MISNS is a 501(c)(3) corporation, and as a nonprofit depends on support and donations from interested members of the public. Its mission to transform the lives of millions of women veterans and families affected by moral injury is vital.
Dr. Roberts’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached at (910) 701-0306, ext. 800.
Public Relations Specialist