In 2006 Roberta Stewart made headline news when she found herself at the epicenter of the Veteran Pentacle Quest. During that time she publicly stepped forward as the widow of a fallen soldier to speak out for religious equality under the law. In 2013 Roberta finds herself, once again, speaking out to the public and the media. However, now she has a different opponent – Gastroparesis.
Many remember Roberta Stewart as the wife of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in combat on September 25, 2005 when his Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. As a Wiccan, she wanted a pentacle inscribed on her Wiccan husband’s grave marker. However, the pentacle was not one of the thirty-six symbols on the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) emblems of belief list. In February of 2006 she joined the Veteran Pentacle Quest – a nine year old, on-going campaign to have the pentacle added to that very list.
With the help of Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Roberta added her own formal request to a collection of similar requests being sent directly to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. With that decision she had joined forces with many other concerned Pagan organizations, Churches and individuals across the country.
Shortly after Selena asked Roberta if she would consider making her story public. Roberta consented. As a result, the campaign began to gain greater momentum. Over the next few months, Roberta and Selena spoke to both Federal and State officials, attended religious freedom events and told their story to the local and national media.
But publicity took its toll. She and her family experienced violent backlash. Her property was vandalized and her daughter was beaten and called a witch.
Additionally, Roberta was not permitted to speak at a local Nevada Memorial Day Service due to her involvement with the Quest. That didn’t stop her. With the press watching, she, Rev. Selena Fox and Army Chaplain William Crystal performed an alternate service at a public park near the Nevada Veterans Cemetery in Fernley. The service was attended by more than 300 people and many members of the press. They called it the “All Faiths Memorial Service.”
Over the next six months the Quest’s momentum continued to grow. Roberta and Selena visited Washington D.C. multiple times, continued talking to the media, and encouraged Pagan letter-writing campaigns. Roberta remained in the public eye for much of this time. As a result, She garnered support from many people far and wide. Recently, she told a Reno Nevada TV station:
Through all of this…there were surprises among those who stood with [me] and those who did not. I couldn’t have done it without the support of people here in this state.
Former Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn was one of these supporters. He allowed the pentacle to be placed on Sgt Stewart’s plaque on the memorial wall at the Nevada Veteran’s cemetery.
However that wasn’t the end of Roberta’s story. For her, the Quest was about religious equality for all service men and women – not just for her husband. In the fall of 2006 American United for the Separation of Church and State filed two lawsuits against the VA on behalf of Roberta and Circle Sanctuary. Finally, after ten years of struggle, the VA conceded. On April 23, 2007, the pentacle was added to the list of emblems. On Memorial Day of that year, Sgt. Stewart’s marker was dedicated proudly displaying the symbol of his faith – the pentacle.
Beyond all the publicity and visible struggles, Roberta was also quietly fighting another adversary. Prior to her husband’s death she began to experience the early warning signs of the serious stomach disorder Gastroparesis – a near paralysis or weakness of the Gastrointestinal system. The symptoms of which include nausea, vomiting, dehydration, malnutrition, bloating, abdominal pain, weight loss, lack of energy and more.
But it wasn’t until 2008, a year after the Quest had ended, that she was officially diagnosed with this incurable disease. Rev. Selena Fox remembers all those bouts of stomach problems that Roberta had during the Quest years. One occurred while they were preparing to speak at the Pagan Religious Freedom Rally near the VA offices on July 4, 2006. At the time Selena and Roberta agreed to keep her personal health problems quiet in order to stay focused on the cause.
Doctors do not have a clear understanding of what causes the condition and have no direct way of treating it. As a result, patients must try various methods in order to find one that will maintain a comfortable quality of life. Since being diagnosed five years ago, Roberta has visited the hospital monthly. In some cases she has had to stay as long as two or three weeks.To date she has tried surgery, various medications, TPN feeding, Gastro-Jejunal feeding tube, and other intravenous feeding methods. Unfortunately none of these treatments have brought her any measurable comfort. She said:
I died two times when they attempted to put a GJ feeding tube….With the stomach bag, I was in the hospital for 4 weeks and every time they released me I had kidney failure.
Despite all of that she remains positive. She added, “I am hopeful that acupuncture, colon therapy, colon hydration, detoxification, kinesiology and natural herbs will help as all other methods have failed.”
In addition, Roberta has chosen once again, to share her struggle with the public in the hopes of helping others. As with the Quest she has turned a very personal battle into an opportunity to raise public awareness. Long-time friend, Rev. Selena Fox said:
I am thankful for her courage, strength, and willingness to turn her life challenges into opportunities to increase public awareness, understanding, and support on important issues. Roberta and I hope that by her speaking out about Gastroparesis … [she will help] build public support for [more] research towards a cure.
Circle Sanctuary has set up a Life Appreciation Page. When news of her condition began to spread the many people whose lives she has touched tried to reach out to her directly. However, she is unable to field the sheer number of emails and calls. If you would like to reach out to her with love, well-wishes, or words of support, you can do so through Circle Sanctuary’s Life Appreciation page.
Additionally, if you would like to help Roberta in her newest Quest, learn more about Gastroparesis. Help Roberta raise awareness about the debilitating disease that has now consumed so much her time and her energy.