While President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, a self-declared witch embarked on a clandestine mission to mark a grave most dear to her.
It was 2003, and neo-pagan high priestess Rosemary Kooiman, 75, was determined that the gravesite of her recently departed husband, Abraham, bear a Pentacle as the symbol of the Wiccan faith the two shared.
Unlike thousands of headstones bearing a Christian cross, Jewish Star of David, Islamic Crescent and Star, or other religious emblems, Abraham Kooiman’s had none because the Department of Veterans Affairs does not permit symbols of Wicca and related pagan sects to be depicted on government-issued stones or markers.
Taking advantage of the attention turned elsewhere that day, Rosemary Kooiman affixed a vinyl Pentacle _ a five-pointed star within a circle _ to the gravesite of her husband, a decorated World War II combat veteran.
That guerrilla action by Kooiman came as part of a decade-long battle by those of her faith to bring recognition to troops and veterans who are Wiccans and believers in other “nature” religions.
Long wrongfully tagged by the misinformed as being Satan worshippers or the casters of evil spells, they say their ancient religion is a peaceful, benign one centered on celebrating nature through rituals, meditations and other spiritual practices.
Why then, they ask, has their religion been snubbed when more than 30 others _ including such relatively obscure ones as Seicho-No-Ie, Eckankar, Sufism and Humanism _ are permitted? Even atheists have their own approved symbol, which features an atom and the letter “A” in the center.
“These people served their country. Isn’t America about freedom of religion? They fought for that freedom,” said the Rev. Selena Fox, a senior minister and frequent spokeswoman for her neo-pagan faith, as well as a prime mover in the effort for government recognition.
That crusade may be nearing an end. The Veterans department said this week that it is nearing a decision on several requests for memorial markers adorned with Pentacles, including one from the widow of a National Guardsman killed in a helicopter attack in Afghanistan.
“We expect a decision soon,” said Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman.
In a step interpreted as partially smoothing the way for Pentacle approval, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration amended a rule last October that had been a bureaucratic roadblock. Until then, applicants had to submit a letter from a “recognized central head” of the faith attesting to the fact that the requested symbol in fact represented the religion.
But because the Wiccan faith and its related sects are substantially decentralized, that requirement was essentially impossible to meet. Now, the National Cemetery Administration asks for a letter from “a recognized leader.”
No one is quite sure how many Wiccans there are in the ranks of military veterans and active-duty troops. Estimates by the Pentagon’s chaplains’ board put the number of Wiccans at under 2,000, out of the 1.4 million troops in uniform.
Fox, whose Wisconsin-based Circle Sanctuary church claims nearly 54,000 U.S. members, thinks the number of Wiccans in uniform is substantially higher than the Pentagon estimate. Many more likely remain in the religious closet, concerned that they would be tainted by misconceptions about the faith, she said.
But for nearly a decade, the armed services have made it a point to be tolerant of Wiccans and other faiths outside the mainstream. Military chaplains, who are trained to meet the needs of all faiths, held their first Wiccan service in 1997 at Fort Hood, Texas. Today, it is not uncommon to find listings for Wicca rituals on many military base coming-events announcements.
One soldier who was open about his Wiccan faith was Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed last September along with four other U.S. troops when the Chinook helicopter carrying them was shot down in Afghanistan. His widow, Roberta Stewart, vowed to push the VA to accept the Wiccan faith and allow a Pentacle on her husband’s plaque hung on a memorial wall at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Her cause got a substantial boost when Nevada GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons spoke out in her behalf this month. So, too, did Lt. Col. Robert Harington, battalion commander of Patrick Stewart’s Guard unit.
“Every family should have the ability to honor their fallen loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice in defending freedom and this nation,” Gibbons, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said in a statement. “It is my hope that the VA will act expeditiously to resolve this matter.”
Whatever the resolution, one who will not be around to see it _ at least in her incarnation as Abraham’s wife, mother of three, government safety officer, and founder of the Wiccan Nomadic Chantry of the Gramarye _ is Rosemary Kooiman. She died of a heart attack at her home in Laurel, Md., on March 5.
“I’m sad that she wasn’t able to see this approved before she died,” Fox said.
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)