After years of religious abuse by his VA doctor he spoke out & lost his life-sustaining health care. He says it's #MeToo movement time for religious abusers.
Navy Vet Faced Death Sentence From Religious Zealot
Navy Veteran Gary RinsemCredit: Military Religious Freedom Foundation
August 21, 2022

When I first spoke with Navy vet Gary Rinsem he was facing a death sentence due to religious zealotry, the sort of thing one associates with Saudi Arabia or Iran, but it was happening right here in America, at the Phoenix, Arizona VA. By the next day, he had a new lease on life thanks to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It was nothing short of miraculous in his eyes, but what he went through is not an isolated problem, and that larger problem very much remains.

Rinsem, who is wheelchair bound, suffers from the rapid-onset form of Wegener's granulomatosis (aka granulomatosis with polyangiitis), an auto-immune disease. “ Without healthcare it will kill me,” Rinsem told me. “Healthcare keeps it controlled. It is never in remission, and I will die if Wegener's asserts itself and I don't have healthcare.” But that’s exactly what he was facing—the prospect of at least three months without an appointment.

First diagnosed in 2011, Rinsem turned to the VA in March 2015, when he was unable to continue working. He had five short-term care providers in the next two years, who were “too incompetent for description, but none of them shoved their religion on me,” he explained. In July 17, he was assigned to Dr. Fred Cheron, the first VA doctor who did anything for him. “I had no choice.” Rinsem said in a followup email. “I had to tolerate him pushing his God and Jesus on me or give up on all healthcare.”

But finally, after a particularly bad appointment on July 25, he’d had enough after receiving the follow-up medical record. “It was so unbelievably filled with lies that it took me a couple days to compose a message, which didn't use a four letter word as a spacer between every word,” he recalled. After that,, “Between 08-01 and 08-13 there had been numerous pointless emails involving Dr Cheron and two people he dragged into the situation.” Finally, on August 13, Rinsem filed a formal complaint.

“I reconstituted his emails into one reply and requested that it be sent to the director of the Phoenix VA Healthcare System, he explained. “I had openly BEGGED repeatedly for my symptoms to be put into my medical record, after seven years with zero healthcare... for the reason I'm in a wheelchair. Dr Cheron openly refused, not kidding, for five years.”

The response was almost immediate, the next business day, Aug 15—but not what you’d think. Rather than respond to his complaint, the VA responded to a counter-complaint by Dr Cheron, locking Rinsem out of the VA message system, preventing further documentation of Cheron’s wrong doing.

“They severed all of my provider relationships. That’s punishment for having filed the complaint,” Rinsem said. “The Phoenix VA documentation claims—and this is a direct quote, ‘To use all the services at the Phoenix VA healthcare system you must be established with a primary care team.’ They not only severed my establishment with the primary care team. They also severed all of my provider relationships.”

What’s more, they told him it would take at least a month and a half to establish a new primary care team, and another month and a half for a new appointment. Three months without healthcare could well be a death sentence for him.

MRFF To The Rescue

Fortunately, Rinsem reached out to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose founder and president Mikey Weinstein has been fighting similarly maddening battles for almost 20 years. And the results were dramatic.

The day after we spoke, Weinstein spoke with and then emailed Tanya Bradsher, Chief of Staff of the VA Secretary Denis McDonough, with three requests—first and foremost, the “immediate assignment of a new Primary Care Physician,” and his reinstatment in the VA system. This was followed up with a letter from an MRFF attorney to Bradsher as well as Michael Welsh, the VA’s interim director in Phoenix.

Welsh responded in less than two hours, “The Phoenix VA Health Care System is going to ensure Mr. Rinsen has a new provider team next week to continue his care,” and he went on to apologize “that this was not able to be handled at a lower level within the agency.” By the end of the day, Rinsem had a doctor’s appointment for Sept 12.

“You all did in four days, what I couldn't do in seven years,” Rinsem told MRFF via email. “You got action from the VA. I can't even get my symptoms put into my medical record.”

But solving the immediate crisis still leaves chronic problems that need to be addressed. One of those was the third demand MRFF made:

[I]mmediate and aggressive investigation of his now former Primary Care physician, Dr. Fred Cheron, regarding the serious allegations of religious proselytizing of our client…..and who knows how many OTHER VA patients Dr. Cheron may have similarly proselytized in the past, is now proselytizing or may proselytize in the future if not stopped NOW!!??

“What happened here is a very good example of the dynamic that we deal with constantly around the clock,” Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. “ The dynamic between a military superior and a subordinate is nothing is nothing like what you’d see between know your shift manager at Starbucks or someone you work for at General Motors. And this is the same dynamic between a patient and your VA physician.” It’s part of a broader pattern, Weinstein noted. “We’ve fought these battles against the VA for years, mostly involving placing Bibles on POW/ MIA tables.”

“Our client tried, and we tried for client to talk to the patient advocacy people. They were utterly and completely tone deaf and useless,” Weinstein said. “So that's why they come to us.”

“I want to make it clear we want a very aggressive public and visible and comprehensive investigation done of Dr. Cheron If he’s done this to our client, Gary Rinsem, how many other Garys has he done it to? How many is he doing it now? And how many does he intended do in the future?”

A Me Too Movement For Religious Abusers?

Rinsem feels the same way, but on a larger scale, in part because of his own life experience.

“I’ve spent most of my life being persecuted,” he said. “Because I was active in the gay community—I’m not gay, but I was active in the gay community community for 25 years—I saw it constantly, people running at me, screaming, ‘God hates faggots!’ they spit on you, throw things at you, if they they really got brave, they would start attacking and beating. This happened a lot. It’s better nowadays, but in the ‘70s ‘80s and ‘90s it was horrific.”

With that experience etched in his bones, “Him [Dr. Cheron] doing this to me is like rape. It’s that weight same feeling I’ve received from people who were raped,” said Rinsem. "That’s what this guy’s been doing for five years and you know he's doing it other people, you know damn well he has.”

But it’s not just about this one doctor. “I believe there needs to be a Me Too movement for religious jerks—just like there is one for sexual predators, there needs to be one for religion predators. These people need to stop. They need to be taken out of positions of authority where they can abuse our government. They categorically need to be removed any position of authority in our government, especially within the military and the VA,” he said. “You know that you fought for this country, you fought for the rights, fought for the freedoms that we have in this country that other countries don't have.”

The idea of a Me Too movement to stigmatize religious abusers might seem wildly out of step with where the GOP is taking the country today. But, as Rinsem argues, there’s no better place for it to start than the ranks of those like him.

Can you help us out?

For nearly 20 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.