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Seeking a Moral Compass in the Fog of War

In the haunting theatre of war, moral injury is an invisible wound. It is the gnawing guilt of impossible choices, the heavy burden of witnessing the unthinkable, and the deep-seated betrayal felt when the ideals one fought for seem to crumble. Timothy “Tito” Torres, a U.S. Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan, knows these feelings only too well.

 

Tito and I first met at the Hero’s Journey Symposium in Washington, D.C. through our mutual friend, Colonel Mary Mayhugh. I was a volunteer helping with the programming; Tito was one of the speakers on the moral injury panel that included a journalist, war veterans, and psychologists from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. I found Tito’s personal story and his work with the Moral Compass Federation fascinating and decided to follow up with him for an interview to learn more.


Tito's military career spanned over two decades, with a significant portion of it spent in Afghanistan. His experiences on the battlefield and his subsequent transition to civilian life have given him a unique perspective on the human cost of war, the importance of community, and the power of resilience.

 

His journey began in 2005 when he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He later served with the British Special Forces as a UK exchange officer, an experience that profoundly changed his life and career trajectory. After his stint in the UK, Tito transitioned to intelligence work, spending several years in diplomatic circles before moving to Washington D.C., where he studied Russian and pursued graduate studies at Georgetown University. It was during this time that the U.S. government executed the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

 

The withdrawal and subsequent fall of Kabul marked a turning point in Tito's life. The sense of abandonment he felt as the U.S. government withdrew from Afghanistan, coupled with the ongoing persecution of his Afghan partners, led him to retire from the military. But instead of succumbing to despair, Tito channeled his feelings of betrayal and moral injury into action. He joined the Moral Compass Federation, an organization dedicated to helping veterans and Afghan partners alike. Through his work with the federation, Tito has been able to help others navigate their own experiences of moral injury, while continuing to advocate for those left behind in Afghanistan.


 

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background in the military, including your tours in Afghanistan.

 

Tito: In 2005, I enlisted in the U.S. Army, joining the 2nd Ranger Battalion. In my late twenties, I served as a UK exchange officer with the British Special Forces, a transformative experience. After that, I transitioned to intelligence work, spending time in diplomatic circles before moving to D.C., where I studied Russian and pursued graduate studies.

 

I had been in the Army for about 20 years and was enrolled at Georgetown University when Kabul fell in 2021. What happened in Afghanistan that year initially sent me in a negative spiral. Witnessing the collapse was the beginning of the end of my time in uniform and wound up driving my decision to retire. Having served nine of my eleven combat rotations in Afghanistan, the sudden turn of events left me feeling abandoned by the U.S. government, especially as our Afghan partners continue to face threats to this day.

 

There are a lot of veterans out there who feel the same way about how the war ended. I had to work hard to get out of the negative spiral I fell into and joining the Moral Compass Federation was a huge part of that. It helped me reframe my perspective and work through the moral injury. I can now help other veterans having a similar experience, as well as continue the fight to help our Afghan partners.

 

Jessica: When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the summer of 2021, you were a graduate student at Georgetown. Almost immediately, your phone was ringing off the hook with people stuck in Afghanistan who needed your help. Along with your fellow students at the time, you were able to work together to rescue hundreds of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. What did that collaboration look like?

 

Tito: What we witnessed at the Kabul evacuation was the worst of humanity, but also the best of humanity. The people who answered the call felt it was morally the right thing to do. I was in Germany when Kabul was falling, and I was tracking best I could what was unfolding on the ground through friends that were in Afghanistan or partners that I had worked with in the past. I was very concerned about a few of my interpreters that were still there that had SIV [special immigrant visa] cases that were going on probably eight or nine years at the time.

 

Torres, serving as a U.S. Army Officer in Afghanistan

 

The night Kabul fell, I received heartbreaking farewell messages from an Afghan colleague who tragically lost his life. Feeling lost and helpless, our community rallied together, swiftly organizing to aid evacuation efforts.

 

Within days, we raised millions of dollars and mobilized a diverse team, including members from the special operations community and Georgetown University's international business program. Despite facing time constraints and chaos, we collaborated with other organizations, leveraging our extensive networks to support evacuation efforts.

 

Amidst the urgency, trust was paramount, though we encountered challenges in vetting individuals in real-time. Despite my intentions to move on from Afghanistan, a moral obligation drew me back into action. Witnessing the events unfold in Kabul, it became evident that we, as a military community, had a duty to rectify the situation and strive for a better outcome.

 

Jessica: I’ve heard your sentiment echoed by other veterans. Meaning, they were ready to put their combat days in Afghanistan behind them, that they had no intention of their lives becoming engulfed in these rescue missions, but felt that they didn’t have a choice because if they didn’t do it, who would? It's a very deep sense of responsibility that is truly admirable.

 

So, it’s been more than two years now since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. While most Americans have moved on, many of our veterans have not. Your organization, the Moral Compass Federation, was founded in the wake of the collapse of Afghanistan. Tell me what initially sparked the idea behind Moral Compass and what are the activities you’re involved in today?

 

Tito: Travis Peterson [another vet who served in Afghanistan] is the chair and founder of Moral Compass Federation. Back during the withdrawal in 2021, Travis and his team were in Kabul. We were connected during that time, but didn’t actually meet in person until a year after. When Travis was forming Moral Compass, I was planning the conference at Georgetown for Global Friends of Afghanistan. We connected at the conference and Travis convinced me to join Moral Compass.

 

I wound up becoming the executive director of the organization. I wanted to become part of something that was helping Afghans and the veteran community. Most recently, we assisted six member organizations testify in front of Congress. The topic was the retribution killings and targeting of our Afghan partners. Our organizations submitted over 300 pages of reports and documentation to back up the testimonies.


Source: Moral Compass Federation homepage

 

A lot of our efforts on Capitol Hill are not necessarily legislative actions. We look into processes and consider choke points, participating in efforts to move processes forward. We also have organizations involved in humanitarian aid and supporting families in Afghanistan all the way to third countries where resettlement support is taking place.

 

On the veteran side, our guiding tenant is taking care of those who took care of this country. A lot of veterans (and civilian volunteers) have been rowing hard the last two years trying to do the right thing by our Afghan partners, but inside they’re hurting. Moral Compass has been providing everything from advocacy for non-traditional treatments to retreats to healing through storytelling. We support peer-to-peer counseling and any other healing approach that we think could benefit veterans. It’s the collaborative process that guides who we are.

 

Jessica: I'm just thinking back to a few months ago when we first met at the Hero's Journey symposium where you were speaking on that moral injury panel. We were discussing on the panel how moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) need to be treated as two separate categories. PTSD has been studied now for over a decade. Moral injury has received a lot less attention. There are a lot of really effective treatments for PTSD as a result, but if you try to treat moral injury the same way you treat PTSD it can easily backfire. 

 

So out of all the different treatments that you mentioned you've been implementing for moral injury, if there was one thing that you had to pick, what do you think is the most effective?

 

Tito: Building a community. Just getting a beer with someone and having a conversation where you’re both in tears by the end is powerful. People don’t want to feel alone. There is an entire community out there feeling the same way and working together to rectify the situation. We can’t go back in time; we have to continue moving forward. But going through a difficult time with like-minded people is helps heal.


At the Hero's Journey Symposium, from left to right: Kathleen Koch, Dr. Jason Nieuwsma, Timothy "Tito" Torres, Dr. Melissa Smigelsky, Mary Mayhugh, Dr. Barton Buechner, Jessica Walton

(Photo Credit: Bobby Ross)

 

I was so upset about what happened in Afghanistan that it basically ended my career. I retired due to moral injury. And for about an entire year I felt I had nothing to look forward to. But then Scott Mann [lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, served in Afghanistan] talked to me about moral injury and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. The moment he helped me identify what I was feeling was the start of that healing process.

 

I had to dig into myself. I had to reframe the entire scenario and start identifying the things I could control moving forward. I had to find the right community. And as a result, I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years. Ultimately, I don’t think moral injury can be treated with one approach alone, but having that community is an important start.

 

Jessica: I think there’s something to be said for being proactive. Following the massacres on October 7 and the subsequent war between Israel and Gaza, a lot of people in my local Jewish community were negatively impacted. A lot of us, myself included, were extremely depressed. But we quickly realized that we can’t allow ourselves to be alone.

 

If you’re stewing in depression alone in your house all day, you start to feel like something is wrong with you. But when you reach out to other people, you realize that you’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. So really, any mental health issue is just exacerbated by isolation and the misconception that something is wrong with you.

 

Second, we realized how being proactive can take you out of that funk. That’s why you see so many people in Israel and in the Jewish communities across the globe asking how they can help. There are currently over 200,000 Israelis displaced from their homes and we’re all jumping to donate money and volunteer our time to help them. So, I think it’s great that you have a solid community surrounding you and kudos to Scott Mann, who I've met personally as well, for putting his hand out to you and giving you that perspective. I know Scott has done a lot of good things for the veteran community.

 

So, back to Moral Compass. What are some of the most recent ways you’ve made your voice heard on Capitol Hill?

 

Tito: The recent [January 2024] testimony I mentioned we gave on Capitol Hill was a moment for the community to tell their stories for those who no longer have a voice because they were murdered in Afghanistan. The stories are unfiltered and brutal, but they must be told.

 

As a result of this testimony, Moral Compass was invited back by the Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee with the House of Foreign Affairs. Growing these relationships with Congress and the administration has been impactful and as Moral Compass continues to grow in this direction we’re planning on hiring a director of government affairs. Moral Compass also exists to help amplify the good work other organizations are doing in the same space.

 

Jessica: Right, so Moral Compass is both a connector and a force multiplier. I recently read a LinkedIn post by Scott Mann I wanted to discuss with you. For anyone who doesn't know who he is, he’s a retired Green Beret officer and the architect of Task Force Pineapple. So his LinkedIn post was titled “Three Surprising Facts About Today's Afghanistan” and it's a pretty sobering piece that includes warnings regarding an increased threat to our national security, the efforts of the National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud, and the moral injury suffered by our veterans who served in Afghanistan.

 

So there was a quote in particular that stuck out to me in his post, which was, “Veterans serve as our moral compass when institutional leadership fails.” What does that quote mean to you?

 

Tito: The erosion of trust in our institutions reflects what I perceive as moral injury. We entrusted our leaders to uphold our values, yet they failed us profoundly, betraying the moral compass that has guided our nation for decades. When veterans return home, they seek leadership that embodies our shared values and supports us.

 

I believe our country would benefit from more veteran representation in leadership roles, including in Congress. Contrary to some beliefs, veterans are not inherently hawkish; our experiences make us fervently advocate for peace.

 

Having a moral compass doesn’t guarantee perfection or moral superiority; it means continuously striving to align decisions with the ideals that define our nation and support humanity. Scott Mann's quote resonates with me because it serves as a reminder of the importance of our moral compass, especially during challenging times.

 

Jessica: Finishing up, what are some of the positive impacts you're hoping to make with the Moral Compass Federation in the near future?

 

Tito: We are still committed to getting our Afghan partners we promised safe haven out of the country to safety. We are continuing to have direct conversations with different parts of the administration to improve efficiency and build out our network of member organizations. We’re also excited about our health initiative program. We are meeting with other organizations to brainstorm and see how we can maximize the impact of the same mission, as opposed to working separately.

 

Ideally, looking down the line, we want to not only continue our conversations and influence on the Hill when it comes to Afghanistan, but continue being involved in initiatives around treatment research for non-traditional therapies. We’re in conversations with the Veterans Affairs Office and other VSOs (U.S. Veterans Services Organizations) we’d like to partner with in the future.

 

Jessica: Just going back to something you said before about the importance of community for healing when it comes to moral injury: This whole thing with Afghanistan is too big for any single individual to handle alone. So, I think it's amazing that you see the importance of working together as a community and that you know how to build that community. And I know it's not what you planned to do with your career, but it’s creating positive impact for countless people in need.

 

Tito: Thank you. I will continue to tell people’s stories for those who need a voice. Everybody has a story and they’re all worth hearing.


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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.


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