Op-Ed by MRFF Veteran Client, RE: Bible on POW/MIA Display

Written by: Sandra Bell, an Air Force veteran

As a former USAF Airman Intelligence Analyst and ex-practicing Christian, who was baptized as recently as 2010, I am now a devout non-believing humanist. I receive my medical care at the Manchester VA Medical Center. I used to feel good about going there. I’d take in the flags and symbols of service and feel honor for having served. Now I experience disgust, knowing that as soon as I enter, there will be a Catholic bible in my face, displayed by the government I’ve entrusted with my medical care. Each visit I’m reminded of people telling me to ignore the bible, find another medical center, or even leave the country since I’m not Christian.

The POW/MIA table where a Catholic bible now sits was religiously neutral for years. A sign explained: “The table is round to show everlasting concern, the cloth is white for purity of motives, a shaker of salt for tears….” Now, there’s also a POW’s personal bible, which supposedly “represents the strength through faith necessary for American service members to survive.”

But not all service members need faith to survive. Some draw strength from the bible, but for others, like me, the bible drains. As a humanist with a strong moral compass, I derive strength from compassion, kindness, and freedom. I derive strength from within, knowing that I am worthy of fighting for. For me, morality means constantly seeking to lessen the suffering of others. Morality precedes religion. It certainly doesn’t come from it.

Manchester VAMC says it hopes all who enter will take notice of the POW/MIA table and “pause to reflect and offer gratitude for the service, sacrifice and valor of our prisoners of wars….” Because of the Catholic bible on the table, I can’t do that any more. Instead, I rush past, reflecting on the dishonorable actions of Catholic clergy who sacrificed children’s innocence for their pleasure.

In 2018, a grand jury investigation revealed decades of child sexual abuse by over 300 priests against more than 1,000 victims. Priests protected by the Vatican. Where is the honor in that?

I reflect on a man who described the abuse he endured at the hands of a priest, involving anal and oral sex. Through tears, he cried out, “No Father,” as the priest held the child’s hand firm around the priest’s genitals. He suffered inescapable episodic flashbacks until he eventually committed suicide.

As I wait to see my psychiatrist, I think of the veterans with PTSD that decide suicide is their only way out. To have the VAMC protect that “holy” book under lock and key mirrors how the Church has protected their predator priests for centuries. How can the VAMC endorse this organization? There is no honor in that.

To those who tell me to look the other way when walking by the bible, I tell them this: don’t look the other way when children are being raped. I deal in reality, not in the supernatural. If you don’t agree, that’s your choice. But let’s keep the government out of the debate.

It’s not the government’s place to promote the Catholic Church or any church to veterans seeking medical care. I hope we can agree that a book so steeped in controversy and charged with complicated symbolism isn’t an appropriate addition to a table meant to honor all POW/MIA soldiers. The bible doesn’t represent many of them, just as it doesn’t represent me.

As their newest client on this matter at the Manchester VAMC, I am grateful for Mikey Weinstein, President and Founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), for his emotional and practical support through this difficult time. It is a comfort to know that as an atheist, I have a platform for my voice to be heard. I am also grateful to attorney Sam Grover for guidance on this piece.

Sandra Bell is an Air Force veteran and the newest client of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) due to the issue of a Catholic bible being placed on the POW/MIA display at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Manchester, New Hampshire. She believes in the progression of the human species through science and reason.

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1 Comment

  1. Grey One talks sass


    Wow! How to respond to so many opinions presented as facts?!

    I’ll just say you are entitled to your opinion, misguided as it is. It is very possible to live a moral life without religion or your personal idea of a deity; hundreds of thousands of people do so every day.

    Perhaps you need to expand your experiences B.B.

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