Fallen Guardsman’s Wiccan faith unrecognized
For the Nevada Appeal
FERNLEY – Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart gave his life for his country when the Chinook helicopter he was in was shot down in Afghanistan in September.
But those wishing to honor Stewart, who should have his name on the memorial wall at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, would have a difficult time doing so.
The space reserved for Stewart, right next to Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn, his comrade from Sparks who also died in the attack as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, is vacant.
Stewart was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which is not recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs for use in its cemeteries.
Stewart’s widow, Roberta, said she will wait until her family’s religion – and its five-pointed star enclosed in a circle, with one point facing skyward – is recognized for use on memorials before Stewart’s plaque is installed.
“It’s completely blank,” Roberta Stewart said, pointing to her husband’s place on the memorial.
She said she had no idea the pentacle could not be used on her husband’s memorial plaque until she had to deal with the agency after the death of her husband.
“It’s discrimination,” she said. “They are discriminating against our religion.
“I had no idea that they would decline our veterans this right that they go to fight for,” she said. “What religion we are doesn’t matter. It’s like denying who my husband is.”
Patrick Stewart’s dog tags, which Roberta Stewart wears around her neck, carry the word Wiccan on them to identify his religious beliefs. But, she said, he was never told the Wiccan religion was not officially recognized during his 13 years of military service in different capacities.
“By they way, if you die for your country, your religion won’t be recognized, that would be nice to know,” Roberta Stewart said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its National Cemetery Administration prohibit graphics on government-furnished headstones or markers other than those they have approved as “emblems of belief.” More than 30 such emblems are allowed on gravestones and makers in veterans cemeteries, from the Christian cross to the Buddhist wheel of righteousness. A symbol exists for atheists too.
Roberta Stewart said she has decided to make the issue a public one because many Wiccans serve in the armed forces who might want the symbol included on a headstone or memorial marker.
Some Wiccans are private about their religion because of the concern their practices and beliefs might be misunderstood, she said. But Roberta Stewart said she and her husband were strong enough to let their beliefs be known in the community.
Patrick Stewart’s religious preferences were made clear at his memorial service, which was held at Rancho San Rafael Park in an oak grove. Some of those speaking at the service talked of Stewart’s beliefs and how, while they held different views, respected him for his values. Stewart was cremated, and his ashes have been scattered.
Roberta Stewart said those beliefs state that Wiccans must do no harm, give to the community and worship the Earth.
“I can’t see anything bad in it myself,” she said.
Community support for Patrick Stewart in Fernley, where the couple bought a home together a year ago, is strong, she said. Stewart’s military colleagues are circulating a petition in Afghanistan that supports his right to use the symbol, she said.
She said she wants the memorial plaque at the veterans cemetery because “my husband needs to be remembered somewhere besides in my heart.”
While Roberta Stewart is frustrated by the situation, a chance exists that her husband’s memorial plaque might be in place soon, with the symbol of his beliefs.
An application seeking recognition of the Wiccan religion, and the use of the pentacle as an emblem of belief on memorials in veterans cemeteries, is working its way through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Rev. Selene Fox, senior minister of a Wiccan group called Circle Sanctuary, said the group filed the application for the use of the emblem with the Department of Veterans Affairs in January by using a new administrative process. The group filed the application with the widow of a Korean War veteran who wanted the symbol for her husband’s memorial, she said.
Efforts have been under way for a decade to win the recognition, Fox said.
Speaking by telephone from Wisconsin, Fox said the application has passed through one level of review.
“I truly hope the approval process will come to a quick and successful conclusion very soon,” she said. “It saddens me that there is, from my understanding from Roberta, a hole in her husband’s memorial where the plaque is to go with the pentacle on it.”
Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs could not be reached for comment on whether the application will be successful.
Fox said her group has worked to follow every detail of the application process. The 24-page application that was submitted included information showing that the Wiccan religion complied with every requirement the agency has before it would consider the approval of a new emblem of belief, she said.
Roberta Stewart said she is checking with the veterans agency on a regular basis to find out the status of the application.
The couple’s daughter, age 12, wrote a letter asking for approval for the symbol’s use.
“Why won’t you put my dad’s religion sign on a plaque,” Alexandria Maxwell-Stewart wrote to R. James Nicholson, secretary of veterans affairs, on Feb. 27. “He respected you and your rules and went and fought for our country and died for our country and this is how you treat him and his family.”
Patrick Stewart, 34, and four other National Guard members died Sept. 25 when their Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade while returning to their base for refueling. They had finished dropping off troops.
He was a Nevada native, born in Reno on Oct. 21, 1970. He attended Washoe County schools, graduating from Wooster High School in 1989.
He enlisted in the Army after graduation, serving in Desert Storm and in Korea and completed active duty in 1996. He moved to Ohio, where he and his brother owned a construction company.
He returned to Nevada in 2001, where he met his future wife, Roberta, and her daughter, Ali. He is survived also by his son, Raymond Stewart, of Spring, Texas.
Patrick Stewart enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard and went to Afghanistan with Task Force Storm in early 2005.
He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Nevada Distinguished Service Medal and the Combat Action Badge.
Roberta Stewart said she remains optimistic that the Department of Veterans Affairs will recognize the Wiccan symbol for use in its cemeteries.
“I am going to have faith in my government to do what’s right and give us the freedoms that our soldiers have earned for us,” she said. “But should they deny it, I will be ready to stand firm on my beliefs.”
She said she has held off on contacting members of the Nevada congressional delegation about the issue to give the veterans agency time to act on its own.
“I would like to lay my husband to rest,” she said. “Me and the children would like to move on. It’s been very traumatic for us. I won’t let my husband be a blank spot on a wall for too long.”
— Sean Whaley is the capital bureau reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.