As members serve their country, they also battle the military to accept their faith
After U.S. military personnel pelted American Wiccan servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq with bottles and rocks as they worshipped in a sacred circle, the Pentagon turned to Patrick McCollum of Moraga.
The chaplain, a national expert on the earth-based Wicca religion, conjured a little Wicca 101 for the troops.
Most Americans glean their Wicca knowledge from TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Charmed,” with their witches and curses, good and evil. Wiccan worship focuses on respect for the earth and its inhabitants with a “do no harm” credo.
“Education is the single most powerful tool,” in dealing with misunderstandings in the military, McCollum said.
Wiccans represent a small fraction of the military, roughly 1,500 among 1.4 million active personnel, but the Pentagon wants to accommodate their faith. The military trains chaplains to meet the religious needs of all service members without compromising their own religious beliefs, said Col. Richard Hum, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board at the Defense Department.
That’s where McCollum and a few other Wiccans come in as on-call Pentagon advisers. The military has sought his advice three or four times since he started after Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
An advisory team became a Pentagon priority when Wiccan military personnel reported problems while conducting rites and religious activities.
The Wiccans said that some chaplains were trying to convert them and that commanding officers made it difficult to practice, McCollum said.
Wiccans also have been pressuring the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow a Wiccan emblem, most likely the pentacle, for armed forces burial headstones or markers. Mike Nacincik of Veterans Affairs, said the department authorizes 38 emblems, including one for atheists, but none for Wiccans.
The military should honor the beliefs of Wiccans asked to fight and die to uphold freedom of speech and religion, McCollum said.
“If these freedoms are taken away while they’re defending these values, it creates a paradox.”
Defending freedom is the essence of the military, said Col. W. Randy Robnett, wing chaplain at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.
“We provide for freedom of religion (in the military),” he said. “That’s why we put the uniform on every day.”
An extensive Internet network links McCollum with the faithful. Paganism thrives in California, particularly in the Bay Area and Los Angeles region, he said.
Wiccans exist in nearly all military branches, some in the top ranks, he said.
The Air Force attracts the most, with 1,552 of enlisted personnel identifying themselves as Wiccans, said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Defense Department spokeswoman. The Marine Corps has 68. The Navy doesn’t report numbers, and the Army lists no Wiccans, she said.
The Air Force recognized the religious categories of Pagan, Gardnerian Wiccan, Seax Wiccan, Dianic Wiccan, Shaman and Druid in 2000. Many bases now have circles and hold services. Dog tags can also identify a serviceperson as Wiccan.
Wiccans had their first chaplain-service in 1997 at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas.
At Travis, Wiccan lay leader and high priest Loye Pourner estimates that 60 Wiccans are among the nearly 11,300 enlisted men and women there.
“Those numbers are way low,” he said. “One of the difficulties in federal, state and military institutions is that they say they want to know so they can … help us” but discriminate against those who admit to being pagans.
Pourner began holding weekly informational meetings at Travis in 1996. The recently retired technical sergeant is lay leader for the roughly 15-member Travis Earth Circle. They observe eight sacred cycles of the year, called sabbats.
Practicing Wicca overseas can be challenging, especially in the desert, Pourner said. The Air Force sent him to Qatar days after the Sept. 11 attacks. He used birthday candles and his canteen cup for religious rites. He and four other Wiccans celebrated Halloween – Samhan – in Qatar. Members of the 45-member troop respected their faith.
During intense times, nearly everyone banded together and sought spiritual support from Pourner.
“We prayed nightly to any divine being that we wouldn’t get attacked,” he said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has so far refused to allow a Wiccan emblem on the headstones or markers of soldiers. Other relatively obscure religions have the privilege, including Eckankar and the Church of World Messianity.
Wiccans don’t meet the emblem requirements, said Nacincik.
The department’s bureaucratic hurdles include a written request from the recognized head of the organization, a list of national officers and a membership tally.
The VA demands are impossible, McCollum said: Wiccans have no hierarchy or governing board for the religion’s numerous sects.
“If they submit the proper information that is required then we’ll go ahead and consider them,” Nacincik said.
“That answer is canned government-speak,” said McCollum.
Pourner said he has e-mailed requests to Veterans Affairs and never heard a reply.
“We have had requests about the process, but no one has followed through on it,” Nacincik said.
That vexes McCollum.
“It doesn’t appear to me that the Veterans Affairs has any burning desire to make this happen.
“The Veterans (Affairs), above all people, should be fighting for each and every one of these men and women who have given their lives for their country.”
The primary tenets of Wicca, as expressed by Patrick McCollum, include:
• “Honoring all paths and people.”
• “That all people are equal.”
• “That Earth, our universe and everything around us, is sacred.”
• “Harming no one.”
• “The three-fold law. How we act both with each other and the world will be directly reflected back on us.”
• THE PENTACLE: The five-pointed star in a circle is the symbol most often associated with Wicca. Four points represent elements, the topmost the spirit.
• THE CIRCLE: A sacred space that can be drawn nearly anywhere. It keeps out unwelcome energy and represents the equivalent of a congregation.
• THE COVEN: A group of Wiccans who regularly meet to participate in the rites, magic, study and celebration of the religion. Not all Wiccans are part of a coven; some practice by themselves.