Pagans find warm welcome at ‘Gateways to the Air Force’

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[This is part one of a two-part story by Cara Schulz from PNC-Minnesota. With today being Veterans Day in the United States, I’m proud to run this important look into the experiences of Pagans in the Air Force.]

When potential Military Members join the United States Air Force they usually enter through one of two Gateways To The Air Force.  Future officers attend college at Colorado Springs Air Force Academy and enlisted trainees go through Basic Military Training (BMT) at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas.  Both places not only educate and train service members in warfare techniques they also help assimilate individuals into the Air Force collective culture.  In the past, that culture has not always been kind to airmen of minority faiths like Paganism, but what is it like now?  PNC-Minnesota spoke with Air Force officials, airmen, and civilian Pagan ministers involved at both gateways. On Tuesday we’ll take a look at the Air Force Academy.  Today, on Veterans Day, we’ll head to basic training at Lackland.

“We each walk our own path to the divine.  Be it in a God/dess faith or not.  Our airmen coming out of Lackland have been armed in so many ways with their military training.  More importantly, they should know that the Air Force has gone to great lengths to ensure their spirit was nurtured while in basic training,” says Rev. Tamie Rieth of Sacred Well Congregation.  She should know.  She’s been the Wicca Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) at Lackland for just over 6 years.  Rev. Rieth is one of 5 instructors who lead the weekly Wiccan services for BMT trainees.

Approximately 150 to 300 trainees attend the two hour Wiccan services held in the Receiving Center each Sunday.  Rev. Rieth and the other instructors spend the first hour answering any questions the trainees may have and the second hour is spent in meditation and chanting.

As a mark of how important the military considers access to religious services, all trainees are briefed religious service options within the first few days of arrival at Lackland.  No one is pressured to attend religious services and there is no penalty or extra duty for airmen who choose not to attend a Sunday service.  In a phone call with Lackland Public Affairs and one of the base Chaplains, they stressed that they treat all religions, and those who are not religious, equally.  Religious discrimination and harassment is not tolerated.

A1C Justin Lindquist, a recent basic training Honor Graduate, said he didn’t encounter  harassment or hazing for attending the Wicca services, “Everyone there really didn’t care what service you were going to.  There were people who went to the Christian services that weren’t Christian and people went to the Wicca services that were Christian and wanted to learn more about it or found the time more opportune.  No one really cared.” He said between four and ten fellow airmen out of his flight of 45 attended Wicca services.

Graduating airmen are allowed to invite their visiting family to attend religious service with them.  For some parents, attending the Wicca service is their first exposure to the religion.  As one parent said on the Facebook AFWingMoms group, “It was a relief to see how normal and professional [the Wiccan service] was.  It was a shock that he was attending that and not the Lutheran church, but I’m not as worried as I was when he first told me.”

When we spoke with Rev. Rieth, she had high praise for Lackland’s commitment to religious diversity, “I’m blessed to work with the Gateway chapel and it’s leadership.  In the 6 years I’ve been involved I’ve had amazing chapel support.” She went on to note how this benefits the trainees, “At Lackland they offer so many options for the trainees to choose from that they leave with the ability to learn about many religions.”

The larger benefit, and the reason the military offers such diverse religious services, is the effect on the morale and well-being of service members, especially in high stress environments such as basic training, “It was really good because you got to unwind and you found something familiar when you are under pressure every day.  Very important.  Just not having your [Training Instructor] around was really nice, especially those first few weeks.  It was important to keep everyone up.  You wouldn’t think it would be so important, but alot of people pick back up religion at BMT.”

Another high pressure enviornment is when service members are deployed.  Retired Lt. Col. Tony Gatlin is a Sacred Well Congregation minister and is  taking over as DFGL at Lackland next month when Rev. Rieth steps down.  He’s assisted Rev. Rieth for four years and has the added experience of being a DFGL and an Inspector General while he was deployed overseas.  He’s seen how building trust and confidence in the Chaplains and DFGLs during BMT can translate into trust and confidence in the field,“When I was in in Afghanistan and Iraq there were airmen who came up to me and asked if they could learn more about Wicca.  They trusted that their spiritual needs would be met.  They learned that trust in basic training.”

If Gatlin’s name isn’t known to you, it should be.  Lt. Col. Gatlin is the man responsible for getting Wicca registered as a religious choice on Air Force service tags and is the first person to have the designation on his tags.  The other designation non-Wiccan Pagans choose is “Other Religions.”

Our community has come a long way from when it was argued Pagans in the military were morally ineligible to self-identify as Pagan.  It’s hard to estimate the number of Pagans in the military, but in 2002 the Military Pagan Network estimated there were over 1,000 active duty Pagans in the Air Force alone and over 100,000 service members and DOD dependents military wide.   Judging from the number of trainees who attend the Wiccan services at Lackland each week, that number is much larger today.

As the number of Pagans in the military increase, more Pagan groups are actively supporting them.  “Pagans who have served and who are serving in the US military need our support, as do their families and friends.  Veterans Day is an excellent time to express our support and appreciation for their service, but they deserve and need our support year round,” said Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary.  She also wanted to express her appreciation for those who choose to live out a Pagan warrior ethic, “Those of us at Circle Sanctuary join with other Pagan organizations and individuals in saluting Pagan veterans, troops, and their loved ones – thank you for your service!”

Lt. Col. Gatlin understands what military members face when they choose to put on the uniform.  The challenges are many, but he says service members can always turn to Chaplains and DFGLs for help, ”You can rely on the Chaplains in the field.  They are wonderful, supportive.  It doesn’t matter what faith you are, they are willing to help you and service your faith needs.”

How can you support military Pagans?
Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance
Pagan Soldier Support Packages is a project to aid our community in collecting personal and magical supplies for Pagan soldiers in the Iraq war zone. You can either do this completely on your own, or drop off items to be assembled into aid boxes containing each a wide variety of items. We will also include information about UMPA and our pagan community.

We collect individual items at any UMPA meeting or event, and at many regional events. If you wish to participate, and can donate the cost of shipping a box this is preferred. If you can just donate a few items, we welcome that as well. We do reserve the right to donate locally any items we find unsuitable for this project!

Drop Boxes located at:

  • Keys Of Paradise, 713 Minnehaha Ave E, Ste 109 & 111, Saint Paul, MN 55106
  • Magus Books, 1309 1/2 4th Street S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414
  • Eye of Horus, 2717 Lyndale Ave South, Minneapolis, MN 55408
  • Sacred Paths Center, 777 Raymond Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55114

Circle Sanctuary
provides support to Pagan veterans and Pagans serving in the US military and their families in a variety of ways.  We sponsor Pagan Circles at US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine installations.  The Air Force Circles we sponsor include those in the USA at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and Sheppards Air Force Base in Texas, plus some overseas, Osan Air Base in Korea and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Each year, we send Yuletide care packages for Pagan troops on active duty in war zones and elsewhere overseas through Operation Circle Care.  Circle Sanctuary sponsors the Order of the Pentacle and the Pagan Military Association.  In addition, Circle Sanctuary ministers conduct Pagan Warrior Blessing rituals at Pagan festivals and other events throughout the year across the country.  For more than thirty years, we have been active in the quest for equal rights for Pagan veterans and troops and their families.

Pagan Warrior Radio
A weekly program for Military Pagans, their friends, families, and supporters, which debuts with a special Veterans Day show on 11/11/11 from 8-9 pm CST.  Pamela Kelly, who co-hosts with Rev. Selena Fox, is the DFGL at Sheppard AFB.

Editor’s Note:  Special thanks to Seshen Wolfsong, the San Antonio Pagans, and the San Antonio Military Open Circle Yahoo group for all their help.