VA Chaplaincy Asked to Facilitate Humanist Services

Currently, religious, theistic oriented Chaplains are on staff and visit patients including secular humanist atheists like myself. While the Chaplains have been friendly, according to their Christian beliefs I will be burning in hell after my demise. While I respect their right to believe as they wish, I don’t find their perspective on death comforting.

Phil Heycock

The above quote is an excerpt of a letter by Phil Heycock, a Vietnam veteran who received extended VA hospice care. Phil was diagnosed with cancer and battled for two years before succumbing.  In the letter, he expresses that he received good quality care but that he felt the Christian chaplains generally available were not comforting to him as a secular humanist. He also requested the letter be held until after his death to avoid alienating his caregivers, whom he knew to be religious.

West Palm VA Policy copy

In the letter, delivered by Joe Beck of the Humanists of the Treasure Coast, Phil requested changes in VA policy to include comfort and conversation from secular humanist representatives and that patients and that family members be made aware of these services. These are requests made by many atheists and humanists in VA care and explain why the chaplaincy should accommodate nontheists as well as theists. At the same time, many are also afraid to alienate those whom they rely upon for care.  

In San Diego, Ted Rodosovich has also approached the VA for humanist services. The chaplains there have been supportive, stocking the Living Well Through Secular Humanism brochure and listing Humanist Celebrant Debbie Allen on their list of chaplain resources.

In response to Humanists of the Treasure Coast, The Acting Director of the center and the head chaplain responded promising to contact anyone the patient wished or to try to find someone, atheist, agnostic, or humanist, according to the patient’s wishes. They chaplain contacted MAAF for the brochure, Living Well Through Secular Humanism. They added the following statement to the patient manual:

For our non-religious patients and family members, support is available from other sources including from a secular humanist perspective.  For assistance please contact Chaplain Service at extension 5661.

Humanists of the Treasure Coast also provided a resource guide with information about Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers and other atheist and humanist organizations as well as references to secular drug and alcohol recovery programs, along with local group leader Phil Katrovitz.

wounded warrior Oscar Zavala, recovering at the old Walter Reed VA Medical Center

MAAF representatives have also contacted the head of the VA chaplaincy and chaplain offices in Texas, Maryland, Virginia, Colorado, Tennessee, and other locations. Along with the rest of the humanist community, MAAF can provide extra resources to meet the needs of atheists and humanists in VA hospitals and hospices. The chaplaincy is an integral part of VA care, and MAAF is ready to help as a community resource.

Unfortunately, patients are in a vulnerable position and take risks in advocating for themselves against a predominantly Christian chaplaincy. We need the VA chaplaincy to take time to improve their services on behalf of their patients. The test of this is whether humanist referrals and materials appear in VA patient literature, as they have in West Palm Beach and San Diego, and whether civilian humanist representatives start to receive referrals from chaplains sincerely putting out the information about humanist resources.

During World War II, while atheist soldiers were forbidden to put the word atheist on their “dog tags”, a Roman Catholic and a Protestant Chaplain were hired to provide spiritual comfort to the religious Nazis being tried for war crimes in Nuremburg. Even today, the USA hires Muslim Chaplains to meet the religious needs of captured terrorists while not one penny is spent on providing comfort to atheist, agnostic, freethinking or secular humanist soldiers from their perspective on life. This shame will eventually end, but not in time to help my friend, Phil. – Joe Beck, Humanists of the Treasure Coast