Battle Lost, War Won
(Author's note: I use the word "Pagan" inclusively- this includes Wiccans, Witches, Odinists, and other non-Judeo-Christian Pagan paths. My own training was in Wicca, which was eventually the religion that was included in the Chaplain's Handbook.)
There are Pagans and Wiccans in the Armed Forces. And their religion is legally recognized and tolerated, as long as the practicing members uphold the military discipline and their religion does not put their duties as military members in a bad light. Senator Bob Barr was horrified by this "revelation" and took unsuccessful steps to undo what a small group of Pagans put together in the mid 1980s.
I was one of that group- one of the ones who was the first to poke a head out of the broom closet and be heard. I paid the ultimate price- it ended my military career.
I did not set out to become a "martyr" for the acceptance of Paganism in the US Armed Forces. That wasn't my goal at all. But I did want to see a change in the treatment of non Judeo-Christian members. We were seen as oddballs- even if we kept our ways to ourselves. If we lived on base quarters, our rooms were subject to unannounced searches- often without our permission or our presence. Things like candles and knives were forbidden- even if they weren't edged weapons. And incense was considered "drug paraphernalia", and the mere possession of it subjected the member to drug testing, and even reprimands.
When I joined the USAF in 1979, I knew that I was not a Christian, yet on the list were hundreds of Christian sects for me to choose from. I had to put something on my dogtags, but there wasn't any "Pagan" or "Wiccan". I had to choose between "None" and "Other". I chose "Other". Of course that led to questions. What other? Are you a Satanist? I kept quiet- Born Again sorts run rampant in the military, and one wrong word- or 'wrong' jewelry escape- would find me on the receiving end of their harangues.
I could write a whole separate article entitled "When Fundies Attack". I honed my defensive and tolerance skills to a fine edge while I was serving. Like I said, the militant Large-mouthed Missionary sorts of Fundies run rampant, and they looked for every opportunity to "Spread the Good News". I was verbally attacked once in a Laundromat, and accused of being a Satanist- for nothing more than wearing my Ankh outside my shirt. Another barrage was the result of someone noticing that I had the book "Drawing Down the Moon" in my hand, and yet another was set off by my showing a colleague how to write their name in Runes.
The harassment did not stop there. My on-base dorm room was always being "inspected", most of the time when I wasn't there. I found evidence of my books being taken and returned, my journal being read, and my drawers gone through. Once, I was called into the First Sergeant's office- because they'd found a candle- in a fire-proof container- that showed evidence of having been lit. Didn't I know that having open flames in the dorm was against regs? I politely asked, "What about the smokers?" The fire chief, who was with the First Sergeant, admitted that the rare dorm fires were all smoker- related. This First Sergeant was pretty cool, and asked me intelligent questions about my religion. After hearing my answers, he permitted not only my candle, but also my incense in the dorm. "Maybe it'll smell better," he smiled.
I was fortunate to run into other Paganfolk when I was stationed in Germany. SCA and Paganism run hand-in -hand, and soon I found a group of people to celebrate the seasons with. We came from all over Central Germany, and even included a few Germans in our group. One lady was a third -degree initiate of a US coven, and we studied with her, and were initiated ourselves in the Wiccan Tradition.
Our discussions frequently involved creating a community of military pagans- just something that they could belong to so that they didn't feel like they were the only practitioner on the base. I placed an ad in the European Stars and Stripes inviting fellow pagans to join Farwander Fellowship, a correspondence group for military pagans.
This was the turning point in my career. Perhaps, if I had kept to myself and my little Coven, the events that arose from those innocent ads would not have happened, and I might be drawing retirement pay today.
Pagans did respond- about 50 or so from all over the European theatre. Turkey, Spain, England, Italy, Greece&ldots;everyone within reach of that ad saw it. Through it, I met several other pagans, who joined our little coven.
But others read that ad too, others who did not think that Pagans should even talk to each other, much less be in the military. Among the enthusiastic responses from fellow Pagans were dire threats, Chick pamphlets, "prayers for my conversion", and actual curses for my daring to do such a thing. They were all anonymous, return addresses not present, which was against regulations. The base postmaster agreed that sending such threats over the mails was probably a federal offense, but didn't really seemed inclined to do much about it. After hearing the Gospel music coming from his office, I understood why.
The press also got wind of my little ad. Both the Armed Forces Network and the Stars and Stripes decided to interview me. I had to have a representative from the Public Affairs office present for both interviews- because in the military, your freedom of speech is not a right. And if I said the 'wrong' thing, it would be struck from the interview. The base PA person was a young blonde Mormon lieutenant, who treated me with barely disguised disdain, and suggested to me that I find a husband AND 'true' religion, because my soul was surely damned. I politely ignored him.
The Stars and Stripes interview went out on the AP wire the following day- Thanksgiving. Suddenly, people in the CONUS (Continental US) were told that there were-gasp!- WITCHES in the military, and by gum, they wanted to be treated with respect! Friends from all over the country were calling and writing me, and sending me the clip from their local paper. Paul Harvey mentioned the article on his show. Selena Fox from Circle called me and wished me well, as did other prominent American Pagans and Wiccans. (Don't ask me where they got my number&ldots;) My mom only said, "I wish you'd had found another way to tell me." My dad supported me, but told me that I was now a target, and I'd better watch my step. He was right.
The Army, Navy, and Air Force Times picked up on the Stars and Stripes article, interviewing me, and several other Pagans around the military. Our goal, we stated, was to get a placement in the Chaplain's Handbook, and be treated as other religions were, which included having our religion named on our dogtags.
Eventually, those wishes were granted. Wicca was recognized as a genuine religion, and we were permitted to keep our altar tools in the dorm- including the athame, and incense. And, if duty permitted, we could have days off on the major holidays to celebrate our rites. We rarely used it, but we were also permitted to use the chapel facilities to hold study groups. Some Christians were horrified- Pagan worship in a church??? Heated debate lit up the editorial section of the Stars and Stripes: Churches were for CHRISTIANS only! No they weren't- these were chapels- made for multi-denominational use! The chapel will be desecrated by the Pagans! No it won't- Pagans worship outside; and if they use the facilities at all, they would use the classrooms for study groups.
On and on it went. In the meantime, our little German coven had voluntarily broken up- we called it the PCS monster- PCS meaning permanent change of station. I was sent to England. Things had quieted down, and I had handed over the Farwander administration to another better-equipped member who seeded the Military Pagan Network.
My new assignment was quiet. I did not actively look for a coven, or even fellow Pagans. But my 'fame' had followed me there, and a quartet of Fundamentalist colleagues, unbeknownst to me, had a mission: get rid of me. They were very sneaky about it. One gained my friendship and confidence. I talked to him about my work, and wondered why, despite my experience with complex electronics, I could not seem to get the multiplexer and receiver alignments correct. I would come to work to find notes saying that they had to do all the maintenance over again, because I had messed it up. I followed the tech orders to the letter, and another colleague, who wasn't a Fundie, checked my work, and called it fine. Yet, time after time, things would be messed up, or missing, or broken on my shift.
Unknown to me, the quartet of Fundies, my confidant included, were going behind me and messing with my work, taking apart things, screwing with the test equipment, and documenting every 'error' I made. Their goal: to undermine my confidence, build up enough paperwork 'evidence', and get me demoted. Demotion would guarantee that I would not be permitted to reenlist.
They succeeded. My confidence in my work dropped like a stone, and I became afraid to do anything, lest I 'screw it up'. My work suffered. I became suicidally depressed. Then they struck, and I was demoted, removed from the shop, and put on powerful antidepressants. My career was over. They had won.
I was honorably discharged from active duty on December 31, 1992, after 13 years of flawless service. I went home, defeated and depressed, to my family. My dad's "I told you so" attitude did not help. But gradually, over the past seven years, I recovered my confidence, have exceeded my military income, and found peace in myself. I still study, but I am a Solitary now. My hometown is a place where Christian Fundamentalism is the dominant religious path.
But I am not beaten. I have been through the crucible of Fundamentalist intolerance, and they have succeeded in burning away any doubt that I am Pagan, and shall stay that way. I have emerged from the flames stronger, and battle-hardened. I have become adept at turning away barbs, challenges, threats, and insults. My ego is dust, replaced with a Warrior's soul.
But I do not consider non-Pagans- even the intolerant Fundamentalists- to be my enemies. In my studies, I have learned that very few faiths can thread their way through the tiny eye of their religious needle- not even fellow Christians. It is ignorance, fear, and religious misunderstanding that is the true enemy. My mission as a Warrior, is to combat that fear and ignorance, and replace it with understanding and tolerance.
I call myself an Eclectic TechPagan. This is the best and shortest description of a Path that really has no name. I am apparent to those who have Eyes to See, and Ears to Hear. Those who are truly Awake know me, and understand me. I do not wear my religion on my sleeve, and my Pentacle is usually tucked into my clothes. My Ankh, and other jewelry announce who I am to people who see beyond appearances. I look and dress quite ordinarily. No one would know that I am a Pagan, unless they asked. As Ralph Blum once wrote, I strive to live an extraordinary life in an ordinary way.
I stand now on the cusp of a new stage in my life. In three months, I officially enter "middle age", following the bolus of Boomers into early cronedom, the first of my "X"-cusp generation to do so. I am revisiting my past 20 years, and refreshing myself in the basics of my Way. My goal: to create a non-denominational Pagan basics manual for our beginners. I have learned much in my 26 years as a Pagan. Now it is time to give back.
Despite the unhappy end of my military career, I am proud to have been one of the group of people who worked to make Pagans 'legit' in the military. And I was very glad to note that Mr. Barr's efforts to eliminate us were in vain. But we must be vigilant- whether we are military or civilian- because there are people in the world who do not grasp the concept of diversity, and who are willing to roast Pagans in the fires of intolerance. It is our job to keep the fire extinguishers handy, and promote tolerance and understanding among the many faiths on this planet.
"Sunfell" is a name which literally means "Clothed in the Sun". It is Nordic in origin, but English in spelling.