Congresswoman Annie Kuster Remains Silent On Veteran Bible Controversy

New Hampshire Congresswoman Anne McLane Kuster has ignored the controversy caused by a Bible placed on a POW/MIA “Missing Man” Table situated in the main entrance of the Manchester VA Medical Center despite having asked the VAMC to provide a separate entrance or facilities for women veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. The large, altar-sized Bible in a padlocked plastic box triggered the filing of a federal lawsuit after the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to remove it from the Missing Man memorial.

The POW/MIA “Missing Man” Memorial at Manchester VA Medical Center

The Northeast POW/MIA Network that placed the Missing Man Table at the Manchester VAMC claims that the Catholic Standard Bible was taken into combat by a World War Two airman and was with him during his 18-months in captivity in a German POW camp, an account backed up by the Manchester VAMC. The large Bible, which may weigh between six to ten pounds, allegedly was with the veteran when he escaped the camp and made it back to his own lines and back to The States.

While Kuster is on record acknowledging that women veterans can get triggered and suffer due to the environment at the military health care facility whose users overwhelmingly are male, she has not publicly recognized that placing a Christian Bible in one of the two entrances to the health care facility has created a hostile environment for some vets. Kuster also has also not addressed whether the presence of a “Missing Man” memorial that privileges male veterans over female veterans could trigger women MST victims.

James Cambridge, an Air Force veteran who is a devout Christian, filed suit on Thursday, May 10th. The former U.S. Air Force pilot was one of 15 Manchester VAMC users who complained about the Missing Man Table’s Bible to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. However, he was not one of the original group of vets who contacted the MRFF. The other 14 have decided to remain anonymous, so they will not be retaliated against.

Acting on behalf of the first 14 Manchester VAMC users who reached out to the MRFF for help, the self-described secular civil rights organization contacted the veterans health care facility in January. The Bible was removed within three hours. Cambridge complained after the Bible was returned to the table.

The original Bible display did not involve a padlocked plastic box, which made its display more conspicuous and more offensive, according to MRFF President Michael Weinstein.

The press secretary for Congresswoman Kuster, a Democrat who represents Congressional District 2, did not respond to inquiries. New Hampshire only has two Members of the House of Representatives. The Manchester VAMC is located in CD-1, which is represented by Chris Pappas, a freshman who also sits on the House Veterans Committee. Neither Pappas or New Hampshire’s two U.S. Senators have acknowledged the dispute.

The lawsuit filed against the Veterans Administration asking for the removal of the WWII Bible has generated a great deal of publicity. Fox News gave it prominent play, while mischaracterizing the MRFF as an “atheist organization” and failing to give equal time to the MRFF on its original broadcast. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Concord Monitor newspaper published a story focusing on a pro-Bible vet who claimed that the Bible represents everyone and all religions, a statement that essentially was left unchallenged. The Monitor let the pro-Bible veteran have the last word. Concord is the capital of New Hampshire and lies in Kuster’s district.

Other news sources have been rife with errors. Breitbart published an article that described the large altar-sized Bible as “small.” Other news sources used pictures of different Bibles, or of the Manchester VAMC Bible in the display case it was put in after its removal from the Missing Man memorial, before being returned to the table in the padlocked box. Much of the social media commentary on sites was pro-Bible placement, with the comment boards on the more right-wing sources being filled with invective, some of it anti-Semitic.

Despite the publicity, Kuster remains silent.

The lack of any comment by Congresswoman Annie Kuster is telling in that she is a strong advocate for improving services for women veterans, including those who are Military Sexual Trauma survivors. Kuster and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, Republican of Indiana, have sponsored H.R. 713, a bill to improve MST survivors’ access to treatment. The Kuster-Walorksi bill would enable MST survivors obtaining treatment outside their Veterans Integrated Service Network to be compensated for their travel expenses by the V.A.

Denouncing the pervasiveness of MST in the armed services as “outrageous,” Congresswoman Kuster said in a press release, “Sadly, many survivors of military sexual trauma face challenges in accessing the physical and mental health services they need when they return home, because the VA does not provide travel benefits to all victims of MST. This failure must end. It’s critical that survivors are able access care that will help them recover from this trauma.”

The Manchester VAMC recently hosted The Clothesline Project, a display of T-shirts fashioned by MST survivors to raise awareness of sexual trauma in the military and in veterans. Under the directorship of Al Montoya, the VAMC has made strides towards being more inclusive, offering services to the LGBTQ community.

The Manchester VAMC hosted The Clothesline Project to raise awareness of MST. (Photo: Jon Hopwood)

Kuster was one of the signatories to a 2017 letter sent by the New Hampshire Congressional delegation to Montoya requesting a separate entrance for women veterans to access services for MST. The Women’s Health Clinic, located on the sixth floor of the Manchester VAMC’s six-story main building, was damaged during a flood that year. The letter asked that the Women’s Clinic be relocated to either to the first floor or in a separate building on the premises.

The letter, which also was signed by U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen and then-CD1 Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, used the example of Desert Storm veteran and MST survivor Cindy McGuirk to justify the need for a separate entrance. McGuirk has post-traumatic stress disorder due to MST, and using the elevator with men often triggers her PTSD.

As of May 2019, the Women’s Clinic remains on the sixth floor. There is no separate entrance for women. The Manchester VAMC plans to tear down four of five historic brick buildings on the campus to provide 11 parking spaces. One building was saved after vociferous opposition spearheaded by the City of Manchester’s Historical Preservation Committee. There have been no reports about whether it will be used to rehouse the Women’s Clinic, though that is a possibility. The Manchester VAMC worked with the Historical Preservation Committee to come up with a solution for their concerns.

The flooding that wrecked the Women’s Health Care Clinic occurred during the outbreak of a scandal that rocked the national Veterans Health Administration system. In 2017, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team revealed that care had deteriorated to dangerous levels. The management was replaced, and the Manchester VAMC has made remarkable strides in improving the quality of care and creating a positive environment under Montoya. Apparently, Montoya and his management team tried to broker a compromise over the Bible display before being overruled by Washington.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Willkie spoke enthusiastically about a similar Bible during his swearing-in ceremony. Pictures of the ceremony showed President Donald Trump pumping his fist triumphantly while Wilkie’s wife held a large Bible he said was taken by his wife’s grandfather into combat during the First World War.

Willkie visited the Manchester VAMC in April. The V.A.’s stand on the Bible that led to the lawsuit and the Department’s response to the lawsuit likely is being directed by him personally, if not by the Office of the President itself.

The continued presence of the Bible could be an expression of Robert Wilkie’s own personal faith. MRFF President Michael Weinstein said that no other V.A. Bible dispute ever led to a lawsuit. Wilkie’s own personal interest in displaying a war Bible at the Manchester VAMC just as he displayed his own family war Bible during his swearing in could be the reason the situation has deteriorated to this point.

The POW/MIA “Missing Man” memorial is located in the main entrance of the VAMC, the same entrance that leads to the elevators to the Women’s Clinic. The elevators at the main entrance also lead to the fifth floor, which houses psychological services. Veterans typically take the entrance closest to where their appointments are, if parking is available.

Manchester VAMC Missing Man Memorial with Bible (Photo: Jon Hopwood)

Congresswoman Annie Kuster’s failure to recognize the Manchester VAMC Bible crisis is significant as Bob Jones, the head of the Northeast POW/MIA Network that placed the Missing Man table in the foyer of the main entrance in September 2018, responded to criticism by saying those who were offended could use the VAMC’s other entrance to avoid seeing the Bible.

In a February 2019 interview with Manchester Ink Link, Jones said, “If someone doesn’t want to see it in the lobby, take another entrance. Turn your head. The Bible stays.”

This was a position that Jones took twice in the interview. “If they don’t like it, they should just turn their heads when they walk in the building, or use a different entrance. I have no sympathy.”

In the interview, Jones also questioned whether MRFF President Weinstein’s goal in opposing the Bible display in Manchester actually was to protect the civil rights of vets and active duty personnel who were offended by religious displays and religious proselyting, or something personal.

I was checking out his website. It says he graduated from the Air Force Academy where they picked on him for being Jewish, and he says his sons who graduated from the academy also experienced the same thing, so at least some of this stuff about religion, you know, I get it. He’s angry.”

Thus, Jones recognizes that religious bigotry has a negative impact — anger — but in the interview, he did not acknowledge the effects anger and other strong emotions could have on a veteran, other than his own anger about opposition to his Bible display. That a personal experience of anti-Semitism in a military setting could be triggered by exposure to the Christian Bible in a government setting tied to military service, which could evoke the millennia-long history of anti-Semitism that was the root of the hurtful acts Jewish military personnel and veterans suffered through, seemingly was dismissed by Jones as he doesn’t see the Manchester VAMC Bible as a religious book.

In the opinion of Jones, a Bible placed on a Missing Man Table, particularly an historic Bible like the on at the Manchester VAMC, does not symbolize a specific religion but something akin to hope. Since in his opinion and as part of the official stance of the Northeast POW/MIA Network the Missing Man Table represents all veterans and is a secular display, a Bible placed on a secular table representing all veterans also is a secular artifact representing all veterans of all religions.

The secularity of the Missing Man memorial apparently is what gives agency to the claim it represents all veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Manchester VAMC also have taken the position that the Christian Bible on Manchester Missing Man Table is not a religious book but a secular book, as they have declared it an historic artifact. However, that position does not negate the reality that it indeed is a religious book, the holiest of all books for 2.4 billion Christians, the biggest religion in the world. It also is not acknowledged by Bob Jones or the V.A. that declaring the Christian Bible a secular book could be highly offensive to Christians and trigger them. Some Christians consider such displays blasphemous, while others believe it is degrading to have their Holy Book demoted to a “secular artifact.”

The sensitivities and sensibilities of dissenting voices at the Manchester VAMC have been ignored. The Department of Veterans Affairs actually formally apologized to those veterans and their families who had been offended by the Bible being removed. In this context, the silence of Annie Kuster and the New Hampshire Congressional delegation becomes a political statement itself.

Bob Jones is forthright that he has no sympathy for the dissenters. Could the Congressional delegation’s silence indicate a lack of sympathy for the dissenters?

In his Manchester Ink Link interview, Jones questioned the courage of the 14 of 15 dissenters who remain anonymous. The silence of Kuster and the other members of the New Hampshire Congressional delegation more likely is indicative of a lack of courage to take a stand on such a hot button issue.

Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster and U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen are on record as asking that the Manchester VAMC acknowledge that women MST survivors can be triggered by the presence of men. Yet, seemingly, they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that a Christian Bible could trigger non-Christian and Christians alike when used in the way that the Department of Veterans Affairs has allowed it to be used at the Manchester VAMC.

The more important issue that is being avoided is whether the lawsuit and opposition to the Bible display could trigger violence at the Manchester VAMC.

The failure of Congresswoman Kuster to respond to the situation at the Manchester VAMC is significant, in light of the spate of synagogue shootings and the continued discussion over the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over a Confederate monument. The Charlottesville violence that led to the death of a woman was mentioned by former Vice President Joe Biden as triggering his own decision to run for president.

With the administration of Donald Trump taking a hard stand over this monument to Christian soldiers in a state that hosts the nation’s presidential primary, and President Trump’s propensity for stirring up trouble and advocating violence, there is a possibility for a second Charlottesville. There are rumors that a non-Christian text may be put on the Manchester VAMC’s Missing Man Table in the upcoming week.

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