Sergeant's Space Left Blank --
Fallen Guardsman's Wiccan Faith Unrecognized
by Sean Whaley
© 2006 Las Vegas Review-Journal
Fernley, Nevada -- Thursday, March 2, 2006 -- 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, 34 miles
east of Reno, 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 laque is installed.
"It's completely blank," Roberta Stewart said, pointing to her husband's
place on the memorial.
She said she had no idea [that] 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
"It's discrimination," she said. "They are discriminating against our
"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
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
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
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 Reverend 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
"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
February 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 October 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,
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 blank on a wall for too long."
Nature Focus of Religion
Wiccans, also known as neopagans, are a loosely confederated group of
religious practitioners who also are referred to as nature religious practitioners.
Their beliefs date to before Christianity and focus on the natural world.
Many of their observances fall around specific times of the year, such as the
summer and winter solstice.
The different groups have nothing to do with Satanism or any of the cliche
images involving witches seen in some Hollywood horror movies.
Breac à linne, slat à coille is fiadh à fìreach --
mèirle às nach do ghabh gàidheal riamh nàire.
A fish from the river, a staff from the wood, and a deer from the mountain
-- thefts no Gael was ever ashamed of.
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