|The Thor's hammer that Matt received through|
the Mjölnir Project of White Hart Forge
I've written before of the value of having at least an approximate number of worldwide heathens; Matt's accomplishment will provide another source of data for those interested in Ásatrú statistics. Hopefully, this news will inspire heathens in other walks of life to work for positive change in the way their tradition is represented in the wider culture. One person can make a difference. Due to Matt's dedication, the addition took effect on July 29.
Matt joined the Air Force in 1995 and has been deployed to Southwest Asia and Turkey. He is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician and currently works as a planner and advisor in the Pacific Air Force Command (PACAF) in Hawaii.
I would like to thank Josh Heath for contacting me about this story and for introducing me to Matt. Josh is co-founder of the Open Halls Project and was central to the effort to have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs add Thor’s hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers.” The Open Halls Project seeks to connect military heathens with both military and civilian heathens worldwide. If you're interested in participating or learning more about the organization, click here to visit the official website.
KS – How did you come to be a practicing heathen?
MW – I had, since early childhood, a natural inclination toward Norse mythology. I loved the stories and the study of runes. My parents were on two different spectrums when it came to religion; my mother was a devout Buddhist, and my father was devoutly disinterested in religion as a whole.
|Matt and his father after being deployed|
It wasn’t until his death in October 2012 that I really dwelled on his revelation to me. I was very close to my dad, and I was the last person to talk with him before he passed. He had been moved to a hospice and had basically held on until I could arrive. We sat and talked for a bit, but after just a little while his mind wandered. As I sat with him his mind seemed to take a voyage – out of the hospital, to memories of World War II, and then finally to family that he recognized. He told me that he couldn’t reach them; they seemed above him, and he had his hand stretched out slightly trying to reach up. I placed my hand under his elbow to raise his arm a little more, to help him reach. He stopped talking after a little while, not responding to my questions or discussions anymore, and within a day succumbed.
Afterward, I did a bit of soul searching, and the story that he had told me about years before kept playing out in my head. I did a bit of research on our family – from our roots in Scotland and Ireland, to the Normans and further inland to near the Black Forest and the ancestors that my dad had felt on his visit there. This started me on the path to figure out who they were and what those ancestors believed. I read various sources, learning about heathens and revisiting Norse tales with a new set of eyes.
|Matt with his family|
KS – How do you practice your faith and engage in ritual during regular duty and deployment?
MW – When I think of it, I’ll raise a horn for my folks. I don’t have contact with any other practicing heathens, so any more formalized ceremony seems odd as a onesie. Interestingly, that’s one reason I wanted to be able to select my preference as heathen; so that when enough people self-identify, I might be able to put in a request with the Chaplains Office to try to connect. Also, my mother had a tendency to go a bit overboard with religion, so I’ve chosen to honor my faith best by focusing on my family and keeping right with the natural environment around me. I figure, to live in a manner that would be respected by my father is one of the best ways to honor my faith.
KS – How have your colleagues and commanding officers reacted to your being heathen?
|Matt with his youngest daughter|
KS – What led to your involvement in the Open Halls Project?
MW – It actually started with an article written here [on The Norse Mythology Blog], about Josh and Cat Heath. After reading about their quest to get Ásatru and Heathen added as a religious preference for military individuals to be able to select, I decided to see what I could do to work that from the Air Force end.
KS – Can you explain what the religious preference list is?
MW – It allows the military member to self-identify what religion or denomination they adhere to. This gives the military a way to have a more accurate view of the religious demographic, and in some cases can allow members of a similar faith to connect through the Chaplains Office. Further, in cases where the member passes away during a conflict, by selecting their faith and having their records reflect what they wish done with their remains, it gives them the ability to have their personal wishes respected in terms of burial and last rites.
KS – What process was in place to have a religious tradition added to the list?
|Armed Forces Faith Code Update Process|
KS – How did you personally engage with the Air Force in order to make this change happen?
MW – I started by trying to figure out who manages the process. I went to the Chaplains Office for the Air Force Pacific Command (PACAF), and placed an inquiry with them to start the ball rolling. I also looked at the central database for personnel (vMPF) to see if they had instruction for how to get a new denomination added. There was guidance on it, but I think that it was a bit outdated.
I placed my request, and was given a message that it was routed for approval, but no further emails were received. The Chaplains Office was helpful though; they put me in touch directly with the plans manager for the Chaplains Office at Air Force headquarters. That’s where my request picked up steam. The Master Sergeant that I talked to there seemed supportive and also wanted to sort the process out.
|Matt in Hawaii with his oldest daughter|
KS – What meaning do you think adding their religion to the preference list will have for heathens in the Air Force?
MW – With nearly 23% of the force listed as No Preference or Other, it gives us an opportunity to have a clearer picture of exactly how many heathen and Ásatrú there are in the military. This may lead to added chaplain support and a broader understanding of our beliefs. Also, it’s simply nice to be able to feel comfortable being open about who you are, and working in an environment that you can feel supports that.
KS – Do you think this change will have an impact on the recognition of heathens in the other branches of the US military?
MW – I hope so. I believe that the other services are not that far off. There are requests in with the Army that shouldn’t be too much longer, and members in the Navy and Marines intend to make their own requests. The success with the Air Force is encouraging and should give others something to point to as a positive for heathens.
KS – What do you think this achievement means for American heathens outside of the military?
|Matt and his daughters|
KS – Thank you for taking the time for the interview, and congratulations on your success! This is great news.
MW – Thank you. I appreciate you getting this message out to folks.