Dead soldier misses honor: VA doesn’t recognize his religion
March 8, 2006
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.
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 is vacant. Stewart was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which is not recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Stewart’s widow, Roberta, said she’ll 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 his death last September.
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“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.”
The Veterans Affairs Department 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 markers in veterans cemeteries, from the Christian cross to the Buddhist wheel of righteousness. A symbol exists for atheists, too.
Stewart said she has decided to make the issue public because many Wiccans serve in the armed forces.
Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans. Stewart said Wiccans believe that they 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 is strong in Fernley, 34 miles east of Reno, where the couple bought a home together a year ago, she said. Stewart’s military colleagues are circulating a petition in Afghanistan that supports the 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.”
Roberta Stewart’s 12-year-old daughter 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 VA Secretary R. James Nicholson last month. “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.”
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.
Those hoping for quick action on the application include U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a veteran who said the problems Stewart faces in trying to honor her husband are disheartening.
Also backing the effort is Stewart’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Robert Harrington, who said the nation’s soldiers are “from every walk of life and every faith. We are all accepted in our community.”
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.
Efforts have been under way for a decade to win the recognition, Fox said.
“I truly hope the approval process will come to a quick and successful conclusion very soon,” Fox said.
Department spokeswoman Jo Schuda said the application is being processed but there’s no new information on whether it will succeed.
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. They had finished dropping off troops.
He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Nevada Distinguished Service Medal and the Combat Action Badge.