Spirituality Gains Ground In Treatment Of Ill Veterans

By Mallika Rao
Religion News Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008

BALTIMORE -- "I have dreams," said Vietnam veteran Raymond Ratajczak Jr., his mouth wet and tears on his face. "Dreams of recovery."

Ratajczak sat up in a cot at the Baltimore VA Medical Center in a room shared with three other patients. Every few minutes, his face wrinkled and he began to cry.

"What did we talk about earlier today, Raymond?" asked hospital chaplain Charles Thomas. Ratajczak looked up from his bed.

"So a man thinketh, so he be," Ratajczak said, paraphrasing proverbs.

Thomas smiled. "Think positive!"

Chaplains such as Thomas are one of the newest methods used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat the nation's veterans. Their job: to assess the spiritual and emotional health of such veterans as Ratajczak and report back to nurses and doctors, in hopes of developing a more "holistic" course of treatment.

Ratajczak, 63, has Stage IV cancer. He admits that although his cancer was detected years ago with regular checkups, "I neglected my health for years," he said, his eyes welling up with tears.

Ratajczak was crying so hard he could no longer speak. His uncontrollable tears are a "reaction," Thomas explained, one provoked even when Ratajczak is not exactly sad. "Sometimes he's better," Thomas said. "But today he's not doing too well."

Such "spiritual assessments" are now routinely conducted on entering patients, though they are not mandatory. Critics, however, say the program runs afoul of the separation of church and state, and say a patient's "spiritual" health should have no bearing on his or her physical treatment.

"They're asking invasive questions, like how many times a day do you pray, and then they're evaluating them," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, founder of the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. "If you don't pass the test, the answer is to give you more religion."

Earlier this summer, Gaylor's foundation lost a case against the VA when an appeals court in Madison rejected a challenge to the VA's use of religion in its health-care practices.

The ruling rested on a Supreme Court decision last year that said taxpayers lack standing in challenging the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

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