This is a special year for Circle Sanctuary, as they recognize the 10th anniversary of the Veterans Pentacle Quest. After a long struggle attempting to get the pentacle as an approved device for military headstones, Circle Sanctuary and Selena Fox teamed up with Americans United for Separation of Church and State to file a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. Assisting in the suit was Roberta Stewart, wife and widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who died in Afghanistan. Nov. 13, 2006 was the day they filed the lawsuit; the VA policy was changed to allow the pentacle on gravestones the following April.
Ten years later, attitudes have shifted somewhat within the military, but more so within the VA. For those unfamiliar with its structure, the Department of Defense oversees all branches of the military, while Veterans Affairs is a distinct department.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Circle Care, the support program for active duty Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, Polytheists and other Pagans serving in the military. In honor of the anniversary, Circle Sanctuary has created new patches for active duty members of the military.
While the progress made has been significant and each of veterans interviewed below were proud of their service in their respective branches, they also acknowledged a need to keep pushing for change and recognition within the system.
Reverend Tiffany Andes coordinates military circles for Circle Sanctuary. She figures there are 18 active circles that she works with right now.
“We’ve had some on naval ships, we have some in deployed locations and we have some in more stable overseas locations” in addition to the circles at places like Fort Bragg and Fort Hood, which are two of the oldest, she said.
Now Andes will be adding another achievement, crossing an important threshold for Pagans in the military. She is believed to be the first Pagan chaplain in residence at a VA hospital, and thus the first Pagan chaplain working as a paid employee of the VA.
“I feel it’s a very important process for us as a community. I’m doing the work because it’s the work that I love to do anyway. I feel very strongly about working with veterans and giving back to that particular community, especially because of the effect of being at war for over a decade,” Andes said.
While she does publicly own her Paganism within the military structure, she wants to be clear that she’s not doing it for personal recognition. “I’m doing this because I love the work,” she said.
Another reason is that she doesn’t feel that Pagans get accurate representation within the military. Just by her presence, she’s challenging norms at the Tennessee hospital in which she works, she said.
“The additional challenges that come with my position include a lot of education. It is an active effort to be pleasant, to be loving and to educate every single day. There’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions and prejudice that we have to move against in the system, to change the system,” Andes said.
“I have airmen, and I have soldiers and marines, they’re deploying or they’re separated from their families and they call me and say, ‘my leadership isn’t supportive of the fact that I’m Pagan, or Wiccan or Heathen or Asatru, I don’t know what to do, because I can’t be honest about my faith, which is what gives me the strength to do what it is I need to do.’ What do you tell them? They’re going off to fight for us, to fight for our freedoms and they can’t have the freedom of religious expression that they’re fighting for,” she explained.
Rev. Andes was honored at Circle Sanctuary’s annual Samhain celebration, and she will be recognized at Circle’s upcoming Veterans Day ceremony and observances, according to a statement from the organization.
“Ministry to veterans, active duty service members, and their families has been an important part of Circle Sanctuary’s work for more than forty years,” said Circle Sanctuary Senior Minister, Rev. Selena Fox. “Her VA hospital work is moving Paganism forward in the ongoing quest for full equality in military and veteran chaplaincy realms.”
Fox said that Circle Sanctuary will be holding a ceremony on Veterans Day at noon.
Currently a civilian employee of the VA, ‘Mick’ is a veteran who asked that we not use his real name out of fear for his job. He claims that while working for a branch of the military in the 1990s, he was removed from an assignment, ostracized, and passed up for an advancement program after speaking openly about his Paganism.
Now, he feels comfortable in the job that he has, but will probably not talk about his faith within the VA.
“My work requires me to work with the media extensively. I also work with dozens of Veterans Service Organizations and the public at large. I’m hoping that things have changed. People are more tolerant. More informed. More loving. But everything I see in the news tells me this is just a dream. It’s a dream that I can’t pin my family’s well-being on again.”
But, he says, his military years were not spent in complete hiding. During a ceremony for reenlistment he had to put his hand on the Bible to take his oath. Mick did so, but went to his commanding officer afterward and informed the man that he was Pagan and felt odd about using the Bible.
“He was taken aback and I assumed I was about to encounter another episode of intolerance. Much to my surprise, my (commanding officer) apologized and admitted he’d never thought about that before. He subsequently began asking sailors who were reenlisting whether using the Bible was appropriate for them. I also was able to assist the base chaplain on several issues that came up involving Wiccan and Pagan sailors on base,” he said.
After the election Mick reached out to say, “I didn’t think Trump would win but this definitely crystallized my anxiety about people doing the right thing.”
Josh Heath of the Open Halls Project said it’s not easy being a member of a non-traditional faith in the military. He said his experience in the army wasn’t terrible, but he did have some difficulties. “There are a lot of Pagans of various sorts in the military and they are making a difference, little by little,” Heath said.
Heath reported that the Open Halls Project had become an incorporated, non-stock, non-profit in Maryland this year, the next step will be to become a federally recognized non-profit. This step will allow them to collect money for the first time in the organization’s existence and fund projects, like providing the Havamal, a poem containing life lessons, or Poetic Edda to hand out to Heathens in the military for free, he said.
Another goal they’re working toward is establishing a yearly retreat for veterans and active duty soldiers. He said he would like it to be a time for military members to reconnect, but specifically to reintegrate into their communities and society as a whole.
Heath said he sees Veterans Day as a “time for me to recognize the people who have served and are still trying to make a difference in the lives of other veterans. I like to particularly highlight organizations that are doing great things to support other veterans. Wounded Warrior Project, though they aren’t perfect, are certainly an organization that does a lot to help veterans. I’m part of an organization called The Mission Continues, they do a lot of community project work. For me it’s about remembering and furthering support for veterans.”
Locally, he said that there will be a blöt to Woden this Sunday and as part of that he’ll be honoring veterans.
Alix Wright said that when she immigrated to the United States from South Africa as a teenager, she wanted to do something to give back to her newly adopted country.
“I needed a challenge, and the Marines were both challenging and inspiring,” said Wright, Pisces Minister with the Temple of Witchcraft.
During her service, she said that she was given a hard time for not being Christian, but, “there were many more who were supportive of me, and still more who just didn’t think it was their business. I hope that by standing my ground, it helped move those things forward.”
“The chaplain at my battalion told me I could have Samhain off if I proved to him that it was a sacred day.,” Wright explained. “He was a little stunned when I put a pile of books on his desk with notes sticking out of them marking all the references, (remember this was before Google) but he read enough of them to agree to inform my commanding officer that I wouldn’t be coming in on Samhain.”
Wright said that she doesn’t do a major working for Veterans Day but that she does wear her dog tags on the 10th for the Marine Corps’ birthday and on the 11th she lights a candle to honor all who have served.
“I’m at least fourth generation military by how far back I can trace (my son was also in the National Guard so he is fifth) so it’s also an honoring of my ancestors who served and acknowledgement of all those who are serving now and will serve in the future,” Wright said.
Michael Cantone, the Aries Minister for the Temple of Witchcraft, said that the temple will be doing a ritual on Facebook this year so that those outside of the New Hampshire and Massachusetts area will be able to take part.
Jack Prewett, first officer of the Covenant of the Goddess and a Vietnam veteran, said that at every yearly meeting, they award veterans submitted by local circles with the Order of the Pentacle. “Paganism has grown a lot since I was in the military, and it’s actually now recognized by the military. When I was in the military that would have been unfathomable. I will say I find it wonderful that we are recognized. There’s now a conduit by which we can have Pagan chaplains, it’s wonderful to see it progressing.”
Prewett advised those thinking about coming out as Pagan in the military to do what makes them comfortable. “The reality is the individual has to take into account his own personal experiences and his own personal safety before he decides he can stand up and say, ‘yes, I’m a Pagan’. I’m hearing that a lot of the military is becoming more and more accepting, so it gives you hope,” he said.
Rev. David Oringderff, executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation, said that, to him, Veterans Day is “a time to honor those who have taken the oath and served to ‘protect the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic.’ For that very reason, the U.S. veteran is different from all of the other veterans of all of the armed forces of the world, past and present.”
Oringderff continued on to explain: “We swore allegiance to a document (that the vast majority of veterans hold as sacred and sacrosanct) that establishes and preserves the ideals and vision of the founders when they embarked on a noble experiment in government that the world had never seen before. Those citizen soldiers fought a bloody and bitter revolution to establish the right to govern themselves in a manner that they chose. That noble experiment has endured for 228 years. And yes, it even survived the 2016 presidential election. One of my favorite quotes of General Washington: ‘when we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.’ And when ‘we assumed the soldier’ we became part of that kindred that cannot be fully comprehended unless you are a part of it. That kindred has protected and defended the Constitution from its inception right up to this very day. And so shall it ever be.”
For Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist veterans unable to attend a local event, Rev. Fox said that, following her Nov 15 broadcast of Circle’s Nature Talk radio program, she will honor veterans live on the air with her annual presentation of Military Service Ribbons.