Category Archives: healthcare

A River Runs Through It: A Lament for Huntington, West Virginia, the Heart of Trump’s America, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Ohio River is one of America’s majestic rivers and for nearly two centuries has been one of the nation’s vital waterways. Over those years cities developed along it, cities that were at one time the center of much American industry and transportation. However, over the years many of those cities have lost their manufacturing centers and cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, fell, but have begun to rise again. 

Yesterday we traveled to one of the cities That hasn’t rose again, Huntington, West Virginia, to spend a week with a dear friend. However, unlike those other cities, Huntington has not only not recovered, but continues to slide into the abyss. For years I held onto hope that Huntington and the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio would come back, but today I realized that it won’t come back for the foreseeable future. No amount of fanatical belief in a political Messiah who promises to Make America Great Again is going to change that, the facts don’t support it and neither do the social, political, and economic culture that has developed over the past fifty years. 

For those that don’t know, Huntington, Cabell County, and adjoining Wayne County are my ancestral home in the United States. My family on both sides were early settlers in the area. In fact I was the first person in my immediate family born somewhere else, thanks to my parents I was a Navy brat and was born in California and raised on the West Coast. My family for the most part has either died off or moved away. I have a few cousins still in the area but haven’t seen any of them in years. 

In spite of that I have always considered Huntington a home away from home. We used to visit my grandparents and other relatives, all of who are now long gone. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were in Huntington. After I finished seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education residency in 1995 I got my first post-residency hospital job there while serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Even then it was a place that I felt safe and wanted to live. Though I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 still considered it a place that I might actually want to retire. It is a beautiful area. 

Twenty something years later I no longer feel that way. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and after we unpacked the car I had to pick up a few things at a local grocery store. I know Huntington like the back of my hand, every area, every street, and while the street names and the geography of the city have not changed, the city has fundamentally changed and though I had seen it coming I never wanted to believe it. 

Huntington used to be the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, things began to change. The heavy industry began moving out, especially in the 1980s when those industries imploded. Likewise in the 1960s the city council and business people decided that they didn’t want Interstate 64 to go through the city because they were afraid that it would negatively effect the downtown businesses. The interstate went around town and the businesses including the state’s largest mall moved to Barboursville in Cabell County. Downtown died and despite efforts to revive it, it has not recovered. 

Bad economic decision after decision, including the rejection of a Toyota engine plant with thousands of really good paying jobs not far from town in the late 1990s have doomed the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the population was close to 90,000, now it is under 50,000. Many people moved into the surrounding areas, but those too are beginning to suffer from many of the issues effecting Huntington which remains the heart of the Tri-State metropolitan area. 

The city infrastructure is crumbling, the ancient storm drain system is failing leading to flooding in areas previously immune from it, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. Its schools are underfunded, the educational outcomes are poor, its economy is failing, and society beginning to collapse, the opiod crisis is just a symptom of a larger decay. 

The city is still home to Marshall University but without it things would be much worse, as the University partners with business and the major medical centers. In fact if it wasn’t for the University, the medical school, and the hospitals there would be nothing here. Most of the industry including steel and chemical plants which used to supply auto manufacturers, make railroad cars, and other manufacturing goods are gone, and most of the derive industry jobs outside of medical care pay little more than subsistence wages and offer few or no benefits. The coal industry has downsized because the coal here is harder to get and thus more expensive than going elsewhere. Despite promises of bringing coal jobs back that is not going to happen. What is left of the coal industry in West Virginia, much of it owned by the state’s only billionaire and governor, Jim Justice,who by the way was a Republican and became a Democrat to run for governor in 2015, who just switched back to being a Trump Republican, is going high tech and not replacing miners. This is not because of environmental regulations but simply because the coal industry has already raped the state of the easily accessible coal, at a tremendous human and environmental cost. 


The city has some beautiful residential areas near Ritter Park which is a wonderful park that stretches for miles along Four Pole Creek. The homes through that area and in the hills that rise sharply above it are where the well off people live, the doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, corporate executives, and tenured university professors. But just a few blocks away people live in squalor. Boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots, and barely habitable homes predominant what were once affluent middle class neighborhoods that I remember all too well. 

The once thriving downtown area is a shell of its former self. There have been a number of attempts to revive it, the latest being the very nice Pullman Square, but many businesses can’t make it there because people don’t have the money to spend. Even a Five Guys burger joint went out of business there, and I have never seen one of those places go belly up. 


The city is the poster city and epicenter for the opiod epidemic in this country. You cannot drive or walk down the streets without seeing someone with the wild-eyed or blank stare of an addict. Homeless people, often drug addicts, walk down the streets with their belongings, and sometimes their children in tow. It is quite sad to see. 

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country it is the seventh most poverty stricken state in the country. Most education ratings place the state in the bottom ten percent of the United States with one of the lowest success rates measured in educational attainment and earnings. It ranks 50th in life expectancy, it is second in obesity, and has the highest rate of opiod addiction and death in the country. I could go on but the drumbeat of negative statistics and outcomes gets too depressing after a while to go on about them. 

Until the past two decades the state was a reliable “blue state.” That didn’t mean the state was liberal in any sense, it was actually a lot like much of the American South which was reliably Democratic until Democrats began to support the civil rights movement, and other more progressive causes in the 1960s and afterwards. It stayed longer in the “Blue” column because most of its Democratic leaders such as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller did not defect to the GOP like many leaders in the South who followed Storm Thurman and the Dixiecrats to the GOP. In fact many of the Democratic state office holders were solidly on the side of business and would be considered conservatives in any other state. But it was only after Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency that the state shifted to be almost solidly Republican, with all statewide offices with the exception of now endangered Democrat moderate Senator Joe Manchin being controlled by the GOP. 

In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump with over 68% of the vote. Interestingly enough, West Virginia is one of the states that has benefited the most from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, and since that legislation was enacted more people have access to healthcare, which if you look at the state’s health rankings is badly needed yet opposed by many Trump supporters. Last week a cheering crowd greeted the President at a campaign rally in downtown Huntington cheering “lock her up!” while jeering former FBI Director and now Special Prosecutor Robert Muller over the Russia investigation. In desparation many people here have pinned their hopes on a false savior, one who promises to Make America Great Again, but cannot deliver for their city. 

Socially it West Virginia is a fascinating state. There are strip clubs and pornography super centers littering the interstate highways and around the outskirts of town, yet the state is full of churches and socially one of the most conservative states when it comes to people’s religious views, especially when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ issues. Of course this is not unusual as the Bible Belt is also the the porn belt. But I digress, I got more into statistics than I intended but they provide a mosaic of what is going on in the state. 

Today I came home in a sense to a place that is no longer home. Since we have been military nomads for some 36 years, West Virginia is still my home of record for the military. When I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 it was our intention to return. I can’t do that now. Today, for the first time in my life I did not feel safe on the streets of Huntington. The poverty is the least of my concerns, and it’s certainly not a racial issue because Cabell County is 91% white. I’ve been poor and lived in crime ridden ghettos that were heavily black and Hispanic, but I hate to say I felt safer in those places than I did today. 


Please don’t take this essay wrong. It is not a polemic by any means, it is a way to process my grief for a city and state that is not going to be great again anytime soon. People can shout Make America Great Again all they want, but fervor and fanaticism do not change facts. I do wish that it was different, but people here are doing what they have been doing since the Robber Barons, Coal Kings, and Lumber Lords raped the state of its natural resources, destroyed the encronment, and for all practical purposes enslaved the people in “company towns.” 

Huntington’s crisis didn’t happen overnight, it is the product of decades of poor leadership by politicians of both parties, business leaders, and yes, even citizens and now many are putting their trust in a false savior who despite his words and their fervor will not change the course of their city or state. 

I think that today after I do my run and walk through Ritter Park, that I will be out taking pictures, not just of the nice areas like I usually do here, the riverfront and Ritter Park, but the blighted areas. I will post them as a photo essay as part two of this either tomorrow or Thursday. 

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under culture, economics and financial policy, healthcare, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

An Accidental Activist 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I would have never thought that I would become a civil rights activist. I’ve been in the military my entire adult life and grew up in it as a child. I was raised with the concepts of loyalty, obedience, and honor as being central to my life. Likewise I have been a Christian pretty much all of my life, and a minister, priest, and chaplain for a quarter of a century. Typically when you mix military, Christian, and clergy the combination does not lead to one becoming a civil rights activist. 

But the long strange trip that has been my life to dates has thrust me into places that people like me seldom experience, much less live.  When I was in high school I was part of a school district that desegregated. There was a lot of opposition to it in the community, but my class at Edison High School, Stockton California, was as racially diverse as anyone could imagine and unlike many other places where the experiment went wrong, our class came together and made it work. Many of us have stayed in contact throughout the decades and our reunions are always well attended, we were, and still are, Soul Vikes. 

When left active duty to go to seminary and went into the National Guard, came to know what it is to be poor, to wonder where the next meal, rent payment, tank of gas, or money for prescription medicine might come from. I know what it is like to have a home foreclosed on, to have a car repossessed, to have bill collectors harass one day and night. To work full time with a college degree and not make a living wage because “good Christians” didn’t think seminary students deserved a living wage because they were not going to stay around after they were done with seminary. I know what it is to have lived in a crime and drug infested area in a rented house that did not have heat during the winter. I know what it is like to lose a job when mobilized to serve overseas, and have those that did it blacklist me among my profession when I complained to the Department of Labor when I returned home. 

Likewise, my profession as a military officer, first as a Medical Service Corps officer, and later as a Chaplain in the military and as a civilian hospital chaplain brought me into contact with people and experiences that I would not have had otherwise. I was assigned to help write the Army’s personnel policy for people with HIV and AIDS in 1987 and because I was the junior personnel officer I because the point of contact for every officer diagnosed with that dread disease. The experience made me realize that the people who got it, regardless of whether they were gay or straight were real human beings faced what was then a certain death sentence. So I started speaking up for them. 

When I was in seminary I worked for a social service organization working in the slums and barrios of San Antonio before moving to Fort Worth and for a time working as the administrative coordinator for a homeless shelter. 

When I finished seminary I ended up doing my hospital chaplain (Clinical Pastoral Education) residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. While most of my time was spent in the trauma-surgery department and the emergency rooms, I still dealt with many AIDS patients, some whose families rejected them, and if they were Gay, were also condemned by their families, pastors, and churches. While at Parkland I dealt with death every day, much of it violent, and I saw the vast disparity between those who had insurance and those who had to rely on charity or some kind of minimal government provided heath care program. 

When I came back from Iraq suffering from full-blown PTSD I came to understand what it was like to suffer depression, hopelessness, struggle with faith, and contemplate suicide. I also came to know what it was like to be ostracized and then kicked out of my church, and be sidelined by other Navy chaplains. 

As I struggled during the early stages of returning home and dealing with the craziness of PTSD my first therapist asked what I was going to do with my experience. I told him that regardless of the cost I would be honest and speak out. I started doing that with PTSD but soon as I was struck by how unjust I felt that I had been treated, and seeing others being treated the same way because of prejudice, whether it dealt with mental health, race, sexuality, religion, social or economic status, I began to speak up for them as well. Speaking up for the LGBTQ community, women, and Muslims, got me thrown out of the church I had served for 14 years as a Priest, but that only hardened my resolve to fight for others, even in my own neighborhood. 

That has continued now for almost a decade since I returned from Iraq. All of the experiences I had before then came more sharply into focus, and if you read this site regularly or scroll through my vault of over eight years of articles you will see how over the years I have continued to become more of an advocate for civil rights. But I think that this is something that my faith as a Christian and oath as an officer to the Constitution demands I do. The German pastor and martyr to the Nazis Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself. That means that I have to fight the battle. 

Many of the causes that I fight for are not popular in Donald Trump’s America, but one cannot give up and be silent just because it is unpopular. Mahatma Gandhi said: “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

I have become an activist, I didn’t plan to become one, it just happened as a part of a very long long strange trip; one that is continuing in ways that I could never had imagined. When people ask how that can be when I am still serving as an officer I believe that my answer is found in the words of the German General, Ludwig Beck who died in the attempt to remove Hitler’s from power in July 1944. Beck wrote: “It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

So anyway, here I am an accidental activist. 

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, healthcare, LGBT issues, Political Commentary, PTSD

Thumbs Down: McCain, Collins, and Murkowski send ACA Repeal to the Dust Bin 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It was an eventful week. In addition to the President’s tweet about baring transgender persons from the military, an action which blindsided the Pentagon leadership and caused a lot of consternation in the military and the GOP, a hyper-political address to the Boy Scouts, another North Korean ballistic missile test, a Congressional vote in favor of more sanctions against Russia, and the end of the attempt by Trump and the GOP leadership the scuttle the Affordable Care Act, more popularity known as Obamacare. 


The end of the GOP Congress’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Health Care came to an appropriate end last night at the hands of Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski who joined with ever Democrat in the Senate to place the repeal attempts in the dustbin of fail legislation. 

After seven years of ranting and raving, failed votes and shear legislative incompetence the efforts of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and President Trump demonstrated that hubris, coupled with incompetence is no way to go through life. Ignoring polls which said less than 20% of Americans were in favor of their various legislative proposals; against the advice every major medical association, the insurance industry, the AARP, and even veterans organizations the GOP leadership goaded by President Trump who blatantly ignored his own campaign promises to make healthcare more affordable and available, pressed ahead. 

A good number of GOP Senators voiced concern, but only McCain, Murkowski, and Collins held the line. A number of Senators voted for the doomed act hoping that if it passed the House would do nothing with it, reject it, or send it back. 

McCain stole the show by coming back from Arizona after surgery which revealed that he is suffering from a deadly form of brain cancer, the same type that ended the life of Teddy Kennedy, to cast the final and deciding vote Thursday night. His action, which followed an ovation to welcome him back was dramatic. As the last Senator to vote he walked up to the clerk of the Senate under the glowering face and folded arms of majority leader McConnell, voted no and for dramatic effect turned his thumb down. It was possibly the crowning moment of McCain’s Senate career. I think that he must have relished it. He came back and voted to allow the GOP repeal efforts to come to the floor, and then voted against every one of them. He could have ended things by voting not to allow the vote to go forward, but it seemed that he savored the opportunity to torpedo Trump who had on numerous occasions during the campaign disparaged McCain’s military service, including his years in a North Vietnamese prison camp at a time the President was using ever deferment and excuse that he could to avoid serving in the military. 

In light of his cancer diagnosis this may be one of his last acts in the Senate, I hope not because I think we still need him, but I am a realist and know how devastating this cancer can be. 

But McCain’s dramatic comeback would have been impossible had not Senators Collins and Murkowski held the line, braving physical and political threats from various Republicans and Trump supporters and not wavering in the face of tremendous opposition. 

So the ill-advised, moronic, and badly botched GOP effort to destroy the ACA failed. President Trump appears not to be deterred and will probably do whatever he can to destroy the ACA even as the GOP Senate leadership begins to work with Democrats on a more bipartisan attempt to improve the ACA. 

It was a humiliating end to seven years of bluster to repeal the ACA without any serious effort to come up with something better, especially since the ACA had its origins in the Heritage Foundation and its trial run in Romneycare. It was a Republican proposal put into place by Demcrats alone because Mitch McConnell and othe GOP leaders decided on the day that President Obama was inaugurated to do all they could to make his presidency a failure and him a one-term president. 

Now, no-matter what President Trump says or does, the GOP needs to decided to work with Democrats. This is not about the President’s ego and need to win at all costs. It is about so much more. Healthcare is one of the largest sectors of the economy, public health is a strategic concern that impacts national security. The health and well-being of people impacts every part of our economy and the future of our country. It cannot be left to ideologues bent on destroying our health care system for next quarter’s profits and tax write offs. 

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, Political Commentary

The Trumpcare Train Wreck: Incompetence + Hubris = Disaster

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mark Twain once wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” That being said is amazing to watch a political party with a majority in the House and Senate, combined with their party’s President, drive the train of government over a cliff in pursuit of legislation that was at best ill-conceived and misbegotten, and at worst an abortion wrapped in a train wreck driven by haughty hubris, and guided by the unparalleled incompetence of the Trump administration and the House leadership. Despite warnings that he did not have the votes to get the bill through the House, the President pushed on, insisting on a vote that brought an end to the bill. It reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s immortal words:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

I watched in morbid fascination this week as the House GOP led by Paul Ryan attempted to ram through this hopelessly flawed bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, only to pull it minutes before the vote. Ryan had to run to the White House to tell the President that they didn’t have the votes as Trump’s display of intra-party brinksmanship crashed and burned in the face of House realists who recognized that the bill would doom them with their constituents and Freedom Caucus extremists who could have cared less about theirs.

The bill would have caused as many as 26 million people to lose their insurance, not reduced the deficit by much, and raised the cost of insurance for those who still were able to have it. The effort exposed both the incompetence of the GOP as well as the lie that they actually care about the people that put them in power, with the worst effects of the bill being felt in the counties and states that most heavily voted for President Trump and the GOP majority. It exposed the basic immorality of this party which regards the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake as more important as people, or the best interest of the country, in the best tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and Paul Ryan’s inspiration, Ayn Rand.

I have never seen anything like it in my life, and never want to see anything like it again. It is a a disaster for the President equal to the failure of James Buchannan to pass the Lecompton Constitution which would of admitted Kansas as a Slave State, over the desire of much of the Democratic Party of 1857 and 1858. To see this happening even as more and more facts come out about the possibility of members of the Trump administration, and campaign team being paid and influenced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia made the week even more surreal.

Watching the reactions of the House leadership and the President afterward was even more fascinating, and disturbing. It looked to me that the President is willing to destroy Paul Ryan and the House leadership, while blaming the the Democrats for not helping. Likewise there were times that it looked like Ryan was trying to undercut Trump even as the Freedom Caucus tried to undermine both Trump and Ryan. Sadly, the GOP did nothing to bring any Democrats over to their side as to vote for Trumpcare would have been a poison pill.

What will happen next is still to be determined, but the first major attempt by Trump and the GOP Congressional majority to pass what was supposed to be their signature and defining legislation demonstrated that they are incapable of governing. Say what you want about the polices of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, one cannot accuse either of incompetence when it came to passing difficult legislation and even winning Democrats to their cause.

As a person who was a Republican from 1976 until 2008 are a disgrace to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. They are incompetent ideologues and demagogues who will destroy each other if they don’t succeed in destroying the country first, and I hope that we all can keep them from doing the latter.

Have a great weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, political commentary

A Reflection on HIV/AIDS for World AIDS Day

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thursday was World AIDS Day, and so today I am going to reminisce about the events in my life that helped bring me to not just care about the treatment of people infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS but for becoming an advocate for the Gay Community. This is kind of an emotional post as I have friends from high school, college, and the military who have died of AIDS, I have known far too many others who have been cut off from their families, and faith communities once they were discovered to be infected with HIV or came out and admitted that they were homosexual.

The role of right wing political Christians in condemning these men and women has been one of the most disgraceful aspects of my experience, and I am a straight, married, white Christian minister. Sadly, many of the people that I will mention in this article continue to condemn LGBTQ people, those infected with HIV, and those suffering with AIDS. Likewise, they have been involved with demonizing men and women infected with Ebola a couple of years ago. They are without compassion, and without empathy. Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist who worked with the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg. Gilbert noted: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the
defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
It is the same lack of empathy demonstrated by supposedly Christian leaders that bothers me today, including Vice President Elect Pence, and several of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, and many of his advisors. 

In 1986 the late Dr. C. Everett Koop, then the Surgeon General courageously went against the feelings of many people, especially his fellow Evangelical Christians by saying:

“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.”

Dr. Koop reminded us all of the basic humanity of those suffering with AIDS and would go on to be a committed advocate for caring for the men and women infected, often going against the bulwarks of the Religious Right including James Dobson and Phyllis Schafly. As a young man he became an inspiration to me.

I met someone with AIDS for the first time, at least knowingly for the first time in the summer of 1987 while serving as a Medical Service Corps personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences, Fort Sam Houston Texas. I was the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, which is the unit that all medical training courses fell under for administrative and command and control issues. My job normally was consisted of basic personnel administration, working with commanders and legal officers when court-martial proceedings were needed, appointing investigating officers for different purposes, reviewing line of duty investigations and running duty rosters. It was nothing to write home about.

But that summer, after years of ignoring the issue the Reagan administration, which had made light of the disease and refused to do anything about it following the initial clinical diagnosis of it in 1981, belatedly, directed the Defense Department to start testing servicemen and women for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected personnel.

Since it was considered by most in the mainstream to be a “gay” disease the Reagan administration treated it with distain, during some of the White House press conferences, Press Secretary Larry Speakes mocked and laughed about it to reporters who asked questions about it.

On October 15th 1982 this exchange took place: in the White House Briefing Room.

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

  1. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?

Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?

  1. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

Q: No, I don’t. MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.

Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—

  1. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)

Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke? MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

  1. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—

Q: Nobody knows? MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—

  1. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?

  1. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.

Q: Didn’t say that?

  1. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)

Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)

  1. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, I retract that.

  1. SPEAKES: I hope so.

Q: It’s too late.

Read more: http://www.alan.com/2014/10/18/that-time-the-reagan-white-house-press-briefing-erupted-with-laughter-over-aids-13-times/#ixzz3GcMPItu7

The late Congressman from San Francisco, Phil Burton told those seeking government help in diagnosing and treating the new disease that:

“I’ll introduce a bill. But if all the angels came dancing down to earth like the Rockettes, even they couldn’t get a dime out of this administration for anything with the name “gay” on it.”

I seriously doubt had Reagan’s friend, Rock Hudson, a closeted homosexual who was a cinematic idol in his day had not died of AIDS in October of 1985 if the administration would have even acted then. Their intentional disregard and negligence was criminal. But they finally did act, and the military acted to begin testing for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected service members.

Back then no one wanted to deal with AIDS or the people infected by it. This was especially true in much of the military. Since I was the junior Medical Service personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences I was told that I would coordinate all services to those infected and work with those appointed by the Army Surgeon General’s office to develop appropriate personnel policies. People in the office joked that I was “CINC AIDS.” That was not a compliment.

When a soldier was diagnosed then they were given a form by their physician stating that they would let any partners know that they were HIV positive and that if they had sex they would only have protected sex. These were a host of other restrictions given in that medical “counseling” and all of these were reinforced as each soldier was then given an order by their commander to the same effect. The difference was that what the doctor gave was “counseling” and what the commander gave was an order, which if disobeyed could result in punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Following this they were sent to me to discuss assignment limitations and career options. When people saw a soldier sitting outside my door, they pretty much knew what the person was there to see me for, as my job became more and more about dealing with those infected with HIV. As I took the job I read everything that I could and discussed the matter with physicians dealing with the disease.

Despite that in the beginning it was a scary experience. I attended a local mega-church and much of what I heard, read and listened to on Christian radio was full of paranoia, conspiracy theories and an attitude that could only be explained as an almost joyful gloating that the “homosexuals” were being judged by God. Not only that since HIV was determined to come from Africa, there was a tremendous amount of “old South” racism interspersed with their theological pronouncements.

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.

These political preachers and activists marginalized Surgeon General Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic how he was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:

“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”

Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”

But that was the world that part of me lived in. The other world was one of logic and reason, informed by human compassion, so unlike what I was being fed by church leaders and the “Christian” media that I immersed myself.

The sad truth of the matter is then, as today, that far too many Christians, especially influential leaders intentionally and malevolently spread lies to bolster their position. For them it is far easier to profit from demonizing people than it is to work with people they hate, to find solutions that help everyone. In my view many of these supposedly “Christian” leaders, apart from their fashionable clothes, are no different than the Nazis who blamed the Jews, Socialists and homosexuals for every ill in society; or the Japanese leaders who organized the Kamikaze Corps to send true believers to their deaths in a hopeless cause simply to maintain their power.

There is no love, there is no care and there is no empathy in any of them. As Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert noted at Nuremberg “evil is the absence of empathy.”

When you do not know or have never have met someone being demonized by religious people it is easy to surround yourself in comfortable theology. However, when a family member, friend or colleague becomes one of those being demonized it tends to blow up your comfortable theology unless you are a sociopath.

I never will forget the day in the late summer of 1987 when an officer came to my office. He was the first person who I had ever met who was HIV positive. He was a medical professional, an Army Captain who had been selected for promotion to Major. He was married, had children and was a “born-again Christian.” He had contracted HIV when dealing with a combative drunk patient, who was HIV positive. The patient smashed glass, cutting himself severely and started bleeding. The shattered glass cut this officer as he tried to intervene and subdue the man. The officer was infected by the man’s infected blood, which entered him through his own wounds. Though he attempted to disinfect himself by normal protocols he became infected. I was looking at a man, just a few years older than me. A man who loved God, loved his family, who had did all the right things but had become HIV positive.

Even now I can see and hear this man, his face is etched deep into my memory, struggling to fit what happened to him into the message of God’s judgment that his fellow Christians and church members said was the cause of his disease. As I talked to him I realized that what I was being told by men who I was listening to every day on the way to work, as well as what I was reading by “Christian” authors and what I was hearing in church was a lie.

My worldview was forever changed that day. I realized that this man had done nothing wrong, in fact he was trying to do his job as a medical professional to keep a patient from further harm. I was able to help him get into a Master’s degree program in Healthcare Administration since he was no longer allowed to serve in a clinical environment. I have no idea what happened to him after I left the active duty Army to attend seminary in late 1988, but I presume since the mortality rate for HIV/AIDS was so high back then that he probably died years ago. I would hope that by some miracle that this man was fortunate and like NBA great Ervin “Magic” Johnson has not only survived but continues to do well. But I know that the odds were not in his favor.

When he left my office we shook hands, something that my fellow Christians said that I needed to avoid. Not only did I shake his hand, but I gave him a hug and I did not wash my hands or disinfect myself. I figured that God wanted me to get HIV from caring for and accepting someone infected with it than it didn’t matter.

Since that time I have worked with, cared for and ministered to more victims of HIV/AIDS, their families and their friends than I can count. Many of them have made significant impressions on me, my life, and my faith. Without them my life would not be as rich as it has been. I continued to deal with case after case and it is interesting to read the citation from my end of tour award for my time as the Adjutant of the Academy Brigade. It is almost all about AIDS.

So we fast forward to 2016. I’m still in the military, only now I am not a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army but a Navy Chaplain and I am now teaching Ethics. During my career I spent about eight years in the critical care environment of major medical center ERs, trauma departments and ICUs. I have a rather unique perspective having experience with AIDS and other highly infectious diseases, as well as the ethics of treatment.

Since I was previously qualified as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense officer when I served in the Army in the 1980s, I understand the importance of, as well as the limitations of personal protective equipment and decontamination procedures. Of course because I know a good number of physicians who specialize in critical care, infectious diseases and pandemics and try to remain current in regard to such diseases, their causes, and the vectors by which they spread.

Thus I realize when I see and hear the Trinity of Evil; the politicians, pundits and preachers who make their living promoting fear, panic and hatred to keep their jobs and obscene profits coming in are at work in demonizing President Obama, the CDC and NIH and poor Africans in Liberia, Ghana and other countries. Like the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the same cast of disingenuous, unscrupulous and dishonest preachers, pundits and politicians are at work today as we wrestle with the Ebola crisis, which is neither an epidemic nor a judgment from God.

Sadly, these people are not limited to their own religious networks to spread their lies, propaganda and hate. They have the full buy in from a major cable news network and countless political “news” services, “think tanks” and Political Action Committees; who are their fellow travelers in their quest to demonize those that they hate and dominate society.

The Ebola crisis of 2013-2014 provided these same people, this Trinity of Evil, and their followers; with the avenue to create havoc without taking any personal or corporate responsibility to demonize people, to hinder rational and reasonable solutions to meet the crisis and to ensure the political destruction of the Black man in the White House who they hate with a hatred beyond comprehension, and beginning in January these same people will have massive influence in the White House and Congress to do their worst in harming people by denying medical care, funding, and research into not just HIV/AIDS and Ebola, but any other disease that they choose to label as God’s punishment on people that they despise.

Their words and actions, often clothed in the language of faith may seem to some as a demonstration of righteousness; only now they are even more closely linked to political and economic entities that simply want more power and profit and use them to achieve their malevolent purposes.

The sad thing is that while the leaders of the “Religious Right” benefit from this deal, their followers do not. In fact should Ebola ever reach epidemic or pandemic status in the United States because of their actions which have helped to hinder the government’s response to it; they don’t have to worry, they have good healthcare coverage which is paid for by their followers; and little threat of exposure. On the other hand their followers will have to fend for themselves, paying exceptionally high insurance rates if they can even afford it all the while the people that they support fight to ensure that they do not have affordable, or reliable access to health care.

The sad thing is that Ebola, as bad is it is; is a hard disease to catch, unless you happen to get blasted by a load of the massively infected vomit or bodily fluids of someone in the final stages of it. In fact Ebola is a lot harder to catch many forms of the Bird or Swine Flu, which are airborne viruses and highly contagious. History has shown that both are far more deadly in terms of numbers killed than either Ebola or AIDS have ever been.

Sadly, the same people who fought against treating HIV/AIDS and Ebola are the same people who mock public health experts and agencies when they warn of potential Influenza epidemics or pandemics, and fight against reasonable vaccination and prevention programs and education.

The actions of these religious and political leaders and their media supporters are unethical, irresponsible and at odds with measure of human compassion. It is like they have a death wish for the planet. But truthfully I have to say that it does not look to me that they seem to care so long as they reap a political and economic benefit from it.

Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like the late Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”

Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schafly, who in my view was one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”

In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even loathsome preacher should abide:

“I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”

But then as it did in the 1980s, the band continues to play on… and those that unite religion and their hatred of others continue to do everything that they can to ensure that people die as they lie. As for me, I am glad that finally saw the truth about these people and I thank people like that HIV positive Army officer who walked into my office in 1987 who humanized that terrible virus, and for helping me see the light.

But our fight is not over, we have to continue to bear witness and speak the truth.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Try to Understand: The Kindest, Noblest, & Best Thing You Will Ever Do

grant and sherman

Grant and Sherman

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman once said of his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand together.” Having been both crazy, and at times drunk, I can relate to both men, both of whom also often suffered from severe and often disabling depression at different points in their lives.

Yesterday I wrote an article about depression and I decided to follow it up with another on the same subject. Yesterday I mentioned the late Iris Chang and her comments about how depression is not rational, and C.S. Lewis who talked about how mental pain is harder to deal with than physical pain. During my worst phases of depression in the years after I came back from Iraq, I fought every day to find something to hold onto, something to keep me from ending my life. If you have never experienced real depression, the kind that slowly eats away the very fabric of your being, you might not understand. In fact it was something that I really didn’t understand until I went through years of it.

Depression is far different than being sad. It is like the difference between having a cold, which you know should pass, and having an insidious cancer which even if it goes into remission lurks for another chance to strike again.

I think that Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of the book Prozac Nation, hit what I am describing on the head, “That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as he sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and in compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”

In a similar manner, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books noted, “Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

I have to agree with both of these writers, depression is the worst. I can live with insomnia, and night terrors, even with anxiety, but depression is the worst, it never seems like it will end. I was fortunate that I got through my most difficult times, including a period just over a year ago where I was nearly suicidal after very bad treatment in the Mental Health Department at the local naval medical center. It took the intervention of my former commanding officer, a doctor named David Lane, who had just been selected for promotion to admiral to get me the help that I needed, but not everyone has that kind of ace in the hole. I wouldn’t have thought of asking him, but his Command Master Chief, and my friend Ed Moreno, intervened, told him of how bad I was doing and that made all the difference. Ed didn’t try to fix me, he just stood beside me and when I needed help, he came through as a friend, and he is still a friend. That is what friends do.

I still struggle, sometimes with depression, but more often the nightmares and night terrors associated with my PTSD. Last night my wife woke me up when in one of my high definition nightmares I was thrashing around trying to defend myself from an enemy insurgent in Iraq. Now mind you, I was never in a close combat situation, but I took part in a number of missions where we didn’t know who the good guys or bad guys were and I was unarmed. But I can live with that, depression without end is far different.

In my worst times I had a lot of people tell me what I needed to do to get out of being depressed. Most were well meaning but didn’t have a clue as to what I really needed. I didn’t need someone to fix me. I didn’t need a checklist of things to make me well. I didn’t need to pray more, or read my Bible more. I didn’t need to work ungodly numbers of hours in ICUs where lives of people were hanging in the balance… all I needed was people who would say I love you, I care for you, and I value you for who you are, not what I want you to be, and will be there for you no matter what, or maybe, let me buy you a beer. Thankfully, there were a few people who did all of those things, and they have been there for me since I emerged from that darkness.

As for the others, who seemed more like “Job’s helpers” it is sometime embarrassing to come across them. Of course I am polite and I do not avoid them. That being said, once you have gone through this, you can see just how uncomfortable that they are to be around you. So those encounters tend to be brief and uncomfortable, as Job’s helpers quickly move along to avoid the awkwardness of the situation. The interesting thing is now I am perfectly fine with their discomfort.

I think that some of the best advice for those who live with, work with, or are friends with a person struggling with depression was written by English comedian Stephen Fry, who said, “Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” That is empathy in action.

I have a number of friends; classmates, and other people I have served with in the military who this very day just hope to stay alive, to find something to live for. The depression that they feel is often overwhelming. They are wonderful, talented and gifted people, people who have a strong amount of empathy for others, but they are enveloped by a darkness and fog which makes it hard for them to see any sign that the depression will ever lift. I have been there, and now I try to be there for them. For me it comes back to what Sherman said about Grant, If I don’t stand with those who suffer from depression after what I have been through, what good would I be?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Separate Ideology & Religion from Sworn Duty: The Legacy of Dr. C. Everett Koop

c-everett-koop-1db591308d7eb474

“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…. The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.” C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General 1986

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have mentioned that I have been reflecting on many things over the past few weeks and months. Of course if you follow my writings you know what I think about public officials who refuse to do their duty to follow the law and protect the rights of other citizens, even of those that they happen to disapprove. This came to a head recently with the case of the anti-marriage equity county clerk, Kim Davis. I am not going to revisit her case as I have been worn out by it and have no need to waste any more time on her.

That being said I can point out the case of a public official, a conservative, pro-life, Evangelical Christian who served as Surgeon General under President Reagan, Dr. C. Everett Koop. In an era of extreme intolerance and hatred for those infected with HIV, Dr. Koop became one of the leading proponents of compassionate and responsible care for victims of HIV/AIDS, most of whom were homosexual men. He met opposition within the administration, where despite his impressive credentials he was marginalized and was vilified by conservative Christians.

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.

They marginalized the Surgeon General; Dr. C. Everett Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:

“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”

Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”

Despite the opposition and attacks on his character by leaders of the Christian Right, Dr. Koop was undeterred and had no problem taking on these men and women. Some of these supposedly Christian leaders still are with us and spout the same hatred for homosexuals that they did in the 1980s. Dr. Koop realized that many of his fellow Christians really didn’t care about people, and believed that HIV was God’s judgment against people that they already despised and had in their theology condemned to Hell. He also realized that many of these leaders would resort to poor scholarship and even inflammatory statements to influence public opinion.

For doing so Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”

Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schlafly, who in my view is one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schlafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”

Dr. Koop understood the oath that he took as a physician and the oath that he took when he became Surgeon General; sadly Mrs. Davis and many in the Christian Right will never understand that. In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even the most partisan political preachers should abide: “I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”

Dr. Koop’s words should be heeded by any Christian in public office, but sadly, those who do will be treated with the same scorn and hatred as Dobson, Kennedy, Bauer, and Schlafly heaped on him.

I can understand Dr. Koop’s plight. I have been set upon by some of the disciples of Bauer, Dobson, Schlafly, Kennedy and others for simply defending people’s rights under the Constitution and obeying the oath of office that I took in 1981 and have continued to affirm since. Sadly, the truth is that many so-called Christians will attempt to destroy the lives, reputation and careers of other Christians who do not tow their ideological line, and sadly this has become much worse than it was in the 1980s.

I will write more about this but for now I will wish you a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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