Saturday, February 2, 2013

Heathens in the Military: An Interview with Josh and Cat Heath, Part Three

Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of the interview.

Self-portrait of Cat and Josh Heath

KS – It really seems like the military’s refusal to accept heathenry as a “real religion” would make it impossible to estimate the number of heathens in the Armed Forces. Journalists, politicians and scholars rely on figures provided by the military – but they’re being given falsified data. How have you been involved in trying to change this situation?

JH – I’m unsure if it’s a refusal to recognize heathenry as a real religion. It’s also not totally falsified data, because they do have data that presents how many choose Other as an option. It’s ignorance about our faith, for sure, but many chaplains are supportive of the religious pluralism mandated by regulation and law. Some are not, and Cat and I have both had our dealings with chaplains that weren’t. Education is key in changing their behavior and attitudes, in general, regarding our religious rights. Beyond adding options to the religious preference list, we’ve also both pushed to try and educate chaplains, chaplain assistants and others about our faith.

CH – Either way, this is an area that is going to become all the more difficult to work on as Josh makes his final transition out of the military. We have some good people that we can work with that are still “on the inside,” so to speak, so it’s not insurmountable – but I don’t know. I would have loved to have seen Josh’s last day in the military being one in which he was officially “heathen” in the records.

KS – How does this situation relate to the lack of a single heathen chaplain in the US military?

JH – That’s a whole other bottle of fish. Seriously. There are about 3,000 chaplains, I think, just in the Army – though that might be the entire US military. Even in the Army, that’s 3,000 spiritual advisors for over half a million people. If it’s for the whole military, that’s 3,000 for about 1.5 million – based on 2009 numbers, at least. For the 2,000 Buddhists, they have one chaplain, and he only recently became a chaplain. There are seven Jewish chaplains for nearly 2,000 Jewish soldiers. The Wiccans – who have a much larger number than we do – haven’t been able to endorse a chaplain yet. Getting the first chaplain of any faith in the military is hard. You have to be the “perfect candidate,” and you really have to work your butt off with both your endorsing organization and the military Chaplains Corps you want to be a part of to make it happen. I’ve seen a lot of folks try and fail to make it.

US Army Chaplains Corps Regimental Insignia
Latin Text: "For God and Country"
According to the Pentagon, "The pages of the open
Bible represent the primacy of God's Word."

KS – Have you been working towards the inclusion of a heathen chaplain in the military system?

JH – Without wanting to let any cats out of any bags, we are working with an individual that might make it to being the first heathen chaplain. I absolutely cannot say any more on the issue as of now. We will see how things work out. I’m hopeful right now.

CH – So, yes, please cross your fingers for us that this works out!

KS – Although the Department of Veterans Affairs allows a very wide range of religious symbols on military grave markers (including symbols of minority faiths like Wicca, Sufism and Seicho-no-ie), they don’t allow heathens to have Thor’s hammer on their gravestone. For those who may not know, will you explain who Stephen McNallen is and how he was involved with the effort to have Thor’s hammer accepted as a religious symbol by the VA?

Stephen McNallen in New York Times portrait

JH – Stephen McNallen is the head of an organization called the Asatru Folk Assembly. He is a former Special Operations soldier himself and was a major force in the early modern Ásatrú movement here in the US. McNallen is also a bit of a controversial figure in the heathen community today, especially because of his concept of metagenetics – the belief that the desire to become a heathen is somehow attached to one’s ancestors through a blood connection. Personally, biology, history, science and the things we know about how heathens really viewed the world make me think this is a bunch of drivel. There are a lot of folks that agree with me, and there are some that agree with Mr. McNallen. I mention this simply to say that, because he is the leader of one group of heathens does not make him the leader – or even the spokesman – of us all. Heck, no one can claim to be the leader of us all and we rather like it that way.

That being said, he did begin the process that helped to drive the VA to change their regulation. He made a speech on the Mall in DC about adding it and began the Quest for the Hammer to have a hammer added to the list. Thor’s hammer is a common heathen religious symbol both from antiquity and from the modern day. It would probably be the most requested symbol for any heathen to have on their headstone.

National Geographic photo of gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery

KS – How did you get involved in this effort? What was your interaction with military administration like?

JH – Near the end of our tenure with the Troth, the Quest for the Hammer begun by the Asatru Folk Assembly became a big thing. We were already working on a load of heathen military ideas, because we were working towards becoming the military stewards for the Troth. We got involved because we were told about the speech that McNallen made, and we wanted to really make a positive change. We had added a religious preference to the Army’s official list, and we really thought we could use a lot of the contacts we had made around the heathen world to make a difference. We reached out to both organizations and told them we really wanted to help, and we wanted to facilitate some cooperation between the two, so that we both could get something really good done for heathens – regardless of political issues that had happened between them in the past. We really thought that we could all work together for the common good.

KS – Did McNallen and his group support your work?

JH – Yes and no. We worked extensively with their military outreach person when this all began. We called our Facebook group “AFA’s Quest for The Hammer,” and we made sure to add their folks as administrators to that group and to keep them involved as much as possible. We got a lot of push back against working with us as time went on. McNallen and his group seem to have their own agenda that we didn’t fit into particularly well. We think it’s pretty sad, too, because we really had no political desire to do this, and getting embroiled in heathen politics was not something we thought needed to happen.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC

Our Facebook group amassed over 600 members in a matter of days. We helped to start a letter-writing campaign to the VA to get a hammer added to the list of symbols for headstones. We had friends in the AFA’s military outreach program that we were talking to about all of this stuff that we could get done together. Then the AFA came back and said they didn’t want to work with the Troth at all. We replied, “Ok, we’ll continue to work with both groups and you don’t have to work with them.” They didn’t want to work with anyone affiliated with the Troth, either.

As for directly working with the military administration, we didn’t do a lot of that for this project. Instead we acted as rabble-rousers, getting all kinds of people on board and writing to the VA and to their congresspeople. In the end, we might have ended up being more involved if the VA hadn’t changed their rules. We were on track to really getting into the administration's face if we had to, but they changed the rules just in time to avoid us!

CH – The whole thing was really a shame, and there were quite a few of us around at that time – in both orgs – working on this that found the whole thing frustrating. Most of those people were military or ex-military, and it was expressed more than once that people were just letting petty rubbish get in the way of working on what we saw as being the bigger picture. There was also, sadly, lots of talk that went along the lines of, “We can only back this person as a potential distinctive faith group leader [a term used by the Army Chaplains Corp] if they’re a member of our org, and if they’ve been one for long enough.”

As members of the military community – and more than aware of the constant cycles of PCS [“permanent change of station,” or moving posts] and deployment – we know that, if we are to get a heathen distinctive faith group up and running, it’s probably going to be a case of having to “strike while the iron is hot.” This was, and still is, all the more frustrating for us because orgs don’t seem to have any issues with getting comprehensive prison outreach programs up and running, but, when it comes to those that take oaths to fight on our behalf, there’s not much out there.

There's a long tradition of striking while
the iron is hot in Germanic myth and legend

KS – What’s the current status of the policy regarding Thor’s hammers on grave markers?

JH – Around May of 2009, we got a message from our contacts letting us know that the VA was going to come out with a change that would make the Quest rather moot. The VA changed their rules on how the system for headstones works. The VA now has a rule that any symbol added to the list can only be done for a military member posthumously. Once a service member passes away, the next of kin can process paperwork to request exactly what image they would like on their headstone. This image will then be added to the official list of options.

Because of this, we highly suggest that all heathens – hell, all military members – add a specific image they want on their headstone to their wills. A legal document will be the best way to prove that a deceased serviceman or woman really wanted a particular image on their headstone. Sadly, someone will have to die before we can have the symbol added to the list. The Irminsul website – which was incidentally my first Ásatrú website, ever – has a good suggestion to go along with the Open Halls Projects suggestion of adding a picture and information to ones will.

This change came about because of all the concerted effort on a multitude of fronts to make it happen. I am damn sure our efforts had a major part in the change.

CH – Sadly, I’ve heard of at least one heathen service member who died and whose wishes weren’t honored by his family. I cannot confirm this personally. The gentleman was a member of a group that I had contact with a while ago, and they had a memorial for him, but – officially – he was given a Christian burial. We really can’t emphasize the need for military heathens to get their wishes in their wills enough. Do it today. Don’t wait for deployment warnos [warnings] or for your unit to tell you; get your butts down to Legal and get this squared away, ASAP. Have those conversations with those you want to represent your interests should you not come home, and – if you have concerns about how your loved ones might act on your behalf – look into (if it’s possible) legally empowering someone you trust to do so in their stead. Do it.

Fallen soldiers return to the United States from Afghanistan

This is huge. If you are the person that doesn’t come home, and your will proves that you wanted the hammer on your gravemarker – not meaning to sound like a Star Trek Klingon – but your death could bring about a real game changer for military heathens and how the military views heathenry. Now, we’re not saying here that we want anyone to die – quite the opposite. On another note, we have several military heathens in our database that we haven’t heard from in quite a while and who haven’t replied to our emails that we’re worried about. So, yes, get your wills sorted and reply to our emails. Let us know you’re okay!

KS – Thank you both for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ve been wondering about heathens in the military for quite a while, and it’s great to finally get some straight answers.

CH – No problem. Thanks for interviewing us.

JH – Thanks for the interview, Karl.

1 comment:

Lonnie said...

I wish you both, and your crews, all the luck you need to make your goals happen. It's a good and noble pursuit.

I also must say, anyone willing to say the truth about McNallen is o.k. in my book. I have some strong opinions on the fella, but this is not the time nor place.

Thank you for haring your stories!

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