[The following is a guest post from Josh Heath. Josh Heath is the Co-Director of The Open Halls Project, a military Heathen outreach and advocacy program, with his wife Cat. Both are world travelers and highly invested in the Heathen community at large. Josh is a few weeks away from beginning a Master’s program in International Peace and Conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C.]
“He was a very moral man… but not what you’d call a spiritual person,” Master Sergeant (Msgt) Matt Walters said, referring to his father during our discussion about the additions of Asatru and Heathen to the religious preference list for the US Air Force. Msgt Walters and I talked for nearly an hour about his pathway to Heathenry, and the complex process he had to dredge through to update the Air Force system.
According to Msgt Walters, the Air Force used to have an automated system to add new religious preferences through their Virtual Military Personnel File (the central online paperwork system for Airmen). However, at some point that system became defunct and no new system was put in place to make updates. Msgt Walters placement as a high ranking Non-Commissioned Officer in the Pacific Command for the Air Force meant he was perfectly located to help kickstart everything needed to recreate the system.
Msgt Walters grew up in a mixed Buddhist Vietnamese and German-American family. He joined the US Air Force 20 years ago this coming January. Describing himself, and his father as largely irreligious, Msgt Walters mentioned several key moments in their lives that helped bring him down the path toward Heathenry. On a trip traveling through Germany, his father looked over his shoulder to see the Black Forest at his side. His ancestors were standing there like a beacon letting him know that he would one day return to them, like a scene out of the Icelandic Sagas.
His father’s journey ended, or began depending on how you see it, with his death a few years ago. This former enlisted veteran from WWII and Vietnam was on his deathbed with his son by his side. Having waited for his son to arrive, Msgt Walter helped his father find his way to the halls of his ancestors. “I knew some day we’d share a glass of beer again,” he said. With that impetus, he began a journey to find a connection to his ancestors and found a faith that made sense to him, Heathenry.
His journey took him through several resources, including the Havamal, which he described as, “that’s my father, those are the kinds of things he would say.” He finally came upon the Norse Mythology blog written by Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried. From there, he found an interview about The Open Halls Project and military Heathens between Seigfried and Cat . Msgt Walters quickly became a member of the OHP, and learned about the movement to have Asatru and Heathen added to the US Army’s Religious Preference list. As an aggressive and dedicated leader, he decided to see what he could do to add that preference to the Air Force lists as well.
Using the fact that Humanism was recently added to the combined list of DoD preferences via ACLU lawsuit, he focused on the hope that our request could be completed without needing such heavy handed tactics. He utilized allies throughout the Air Force command structure to recreate a process to have new preferences added. A graphic below describes the process.
I don’t think it’s any surprise that this system is arcane. Even to the trained military eye it is hard to follow and elicits a quick response of, “Why is it this hard to do this;” especially considering that there are dozens, if not a few hundred individuals involved along the way for such a request to be completed. Msgt. Walters had to assist the Air Force in finding the applicable regulations to add religious preferences, which had been lost and forgotten. Once the system was in place once more, the request was made, and finally, approved on July 29th 2014.
“This is an awesome victory for us, and one that has required a lot of awareness raising and a lot of paperwork. We want to officially thank Msgt Walters for making this happen for the Air Force. Now all our Airmen need to go change their Religious Preference!!!” – The Open Halls Project
The fight is not over, the Army still does not recognize Asatru or Heathen as religious preferences officially. Nor does the Navy, the Marines, or even the Coast Guard. However, requests are nearing completion in the Army as this is being written and a request will soon be prepared for the Navy and the Marines. The Open Halls Project was started to help military Heathens find community wherever they are. We have been committed to advocating for the needs of all military heathens or Asatruar wherever they are, regardless of service, regardless of any other issues. Our small faith community has a large amount of folks who have dedicated themselves to serving their country. It really is a small thing we can do to help support them, but it’s a small thing that means a lot!