Wiccan soldier’s widow not invited to meet Bush
Nevada Appeal News Service
During his visit to Reno on Tuesday, President George W. Bush met privately with families of fallen Northern Nevada soldiers. Fernley resident Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was not among the invited guests.
Patrick Stewart was killed, along with four other soldiers, on Sept. 25, 2005, when a Chinook helicopter from the Nevada Army National Guard’s Mustang 22 Unit out of Reno was shot down in Afghanistan.
Although family members were not given written invitations, they were notified by phone the week prior to the president’s visit, said Stewart.
Stewart said she was told the “next of kin” was notified by the president’s staff prior to the visit.
“Funny, I’m listed as Patrick’s next of kin, so I don’t understand why I was not called personally.”
According to the “Record of Emergency Data” provided by Stewart, the spouse is the first person listed on the document for notification purposes. The children are listed second, followed by the service member’s father, then mother.
Roberta Stewart and her family spent more than a year in the national spotlight as she fought the Department of Veterans Affairs to have her husband honored as a Wiccan. According to Sgt. Stewart’s records, Wicca was depicted as his religion on his dog tags as well as in his permanent records.
The Wiccan religion has been acknowledged by the U.S. military since the 1960s, said Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan organization in Barneveld, Wis. When the first military chaplain handbooks were published in 1978, the religion and its practices were included.
Stewart was given a plaque with his emblem of belief, a five-pointed star or pentacle, by the state of Nevada one year after his death. The state chose to override the federal government prior to the pentacle being approved by the VA. The emblem became an authorized symbol after a settlement in April.
Since the approval of the emblem in April, “There are now three markers with pentacles on them at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Fox after a recent visit to the national cemetery.
“I don’t believe Roberta’s exclusion from the meeting with President Bush was an oversight,” she said. “Out of all the Nevada soldiers who were killed in the wars, the most visible of those was the late Sgt. Patrick Stewart and his widow Roberta Stewart, who was in the media for more than a year working to get him properly honored. I find it surprising and disappointing that with such widespread publicity she was excluded from the meeting.”
Fox said she thought Stewart would have been the first person the White House would invite to give her the support she has needed all along.
“I truly hope that the president will make amends to Roberta and will give support to all troops and families regardless of their religion in the future,” she said. “This incident has slowed her (Roberta’s) healing process. To be snubbed was a setback.”
Fox said she thought the government had moved past discrimination based on religion.
“I put the blame clearly on the White House. I hope that in the future, religion is not going to play a part in the honoring of soldiers or their next of kin, by the government and particularly the president,” said Fox. “I thought we had achieved equal rights for all soldiers.”
A White House spokesperson said the lack of an invitation was not intentional.
“The president was not aware. This was an oversight on the part of the Army, and we deeply regret the mistake,” said spokesman Trey Bohn.
A military official echoed the White House’s explanation.
“It was an unfortunate oversight by the Army. Inadvertently, the second family member was notified. A mistake occurred. She’s an Army spouse. She’s part of the family. It was a mistake, an unfortunate mistake,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington of the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.
Barry Lynn from Americans United asked the president for a public apology to Stewart in a press release Wednesday.
“She stood courageously for religious freedom for all soldiers, and the president was wrong to treat her so shabbily,” he said in the press release.
“There is no excuse. This is indefensible,” Lynn said during a phone interview Wednesday in response to the statement from the Army. “So-called oversights often cover up a multitude of sins.”