Thursday, January 8, 2015

Heathens in The Military: Army Adds Ásatrú and Heathen

UPDATE: Since this article was posted in January, the Army has told Heathen soldiers that their religion has NOT been recognized. Click here for details on backtracking by the Chaplains Office. Click here to learn how you can help Heathen soldiers fight for their religious rights.

The Thor's Hammer that Daniel Head received from Mjölnir Project 

The United States Army has finally added Ásatrú and Heathen as options in its religious preference list. This follows two recent victories for Heathens in the Armed Forces: the 2013 addition of Thor’s hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the 2014 addition of Ásatrú and Heathen to the Air Force’s religious preference list.

To understand how this latest change happened, I interviewed the two Heathens who made it so: Josh Heath and Daniel Head.

The Norse Mythology Blog first covered Heathens in the military with an interview with Josh and Cat Heath in January 2013, several months before Thor’s hammer was approved for grave markers. Josh has been integrally involved with the push for Heathen recognition in the Armed Forces, and he has tirelessly worked towards this latest achievement. He was on active duty in the US Army from 2006 to 2011, serving as a Quartermaster and Chemical Equipment Repairer / General Mechanic and being deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008-2009. He is currently a graduate student at American University in their International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, and he is a dedicated advocate for interfaith communication. He continues to work with military members and veterans in many aspects of his life and work, including as co-director of the Open Halls Project, an organization “set up to connect military Heathens with civilian and military Heathens throughout the world.”

Daniel Head is the active soldier who finished the process of having Ásatrú and Heathen added to the Army’s religious preference list. Born and raised in Colorado, he has been in the Army for eight and a half years. He works in Military Intelligence and is currently stationed in Orlando, Florida. He will soon be undergoing a Permanent Change of Duty Station to Stuttgart, Germany.

Below is my new double interview with Josh and Daniel. Before getting into the details of the latest development in the Army, I asked Daniel a bit about his religious background and practice. To learn more about Josh Heath’s work and religious views, read his 2013 interview by clicking here.


KS – How did you come to Heathenry? How long have you practiced?

DH – Growing up, I was raised Christian in a Christian home. However, the lessons and values taught to me centered on loyalty to family, traditions and appreciating the fruit of labor. When I say “raised Christian,” I don’t mean I went to church every Sunday, said grace before supper every evening, or really did much “Christian” outside the major holidays or around the grandparents.

Daniel Head wearing his Thor's hammer pendant

My mother comes from a pagan background on her family’s side. She doesn’t necessary consider herself pagan, but she did use tidbits of various mythologies to teach me life lessons and values. I will never forget getting caught lying to her. She twisted the story of Loki being bound to fit the situation and scared me from lying to her for quite a time!

Growing up, I went through the clichéd religious confusion. I studied multiple faiths “looking for the right answers.” As I traversed Christianity, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy, I came across Wicca. When I initially enlisted to the Army in October 2005, my preference was as such. Soon I realized I didn’t like the Hellenistic approach of picking and choosing from the various pantheons. This was when I started to follow what felt right. This led to the Norse pantheon and remembering those tales from my childhood.

Overall, I think how you define Heathen would determine how long I have practiced. Unwittingly, I think I’ve been Heathen my entire life. Wittingly though, I have been a practicing Heathen for about three years.

KS – How have you practiced while serving?

DH – Being in the military (or any regular job, for that matter), time is unpredictable. You can’t always take off for a holiday or host a blót [Heathen ritual] to get out of a training exercise. Other factors include that not everyone else is Heathen, not all Heathens are open about it, and those who are open aren’t necessarily practicing from the same perspective in this worldview.

Daniel & his brothers: three hammer-wearers in the Armed Forces

I mainly focus on my family. We are a young family with two younger children, aged five and two. My wife doesn’t necessarily identify as Heathen – or anything else, for that matter. She likes the family orientation in Heathenry, though, and we are starting our own traditions. This past year was the first time we actually did anything for Yule. I told a couple of variations of Frau Holle to the kids, and we lit our Yule candle every night for 12 nights. Both of my kids and I wear Mjölnirs [Thor’s hammers] of our own, and my wife wears a gold-plated tree as a representation of Yggdrasill. My son and I have read Beowulf together, as well as other stories from Norse lore. I look forward to introducing him to other sagas.

KS – How long have your colleagues and commanding officers known about your participation in Heathenry? What has their reaction been?

DH – Personally, I don’t think my religious preference enables or disables me when it comes to my profession. I hold my own values to myself and operate accordingly. I work with two atheists and a “when it’s convenient” Christian. They all know my religious preference, but only because I had to bring it up when I submitted Army paperwork to add Heathen as a recognized religious preference code. Their initial responses summed up to “not surprised, but intrigued.” When they hear “heathen,” they do not envision me. They think barbaric, anti-Christian, uncultured and ignorant savage with a club. My boss/commander asks me a question or two from time to time, but he stays very reserved about it. It’s actually entertaining because I can see he really wants to know more, but is awkward in asking.

KS – What was the process for getting these preferences added?

JH – This has been a five-year process, so I'll be honest – I'm not sure I remember all the different parts of making this happen. However, the key was perseverance. In 2009, the Army had a process of requesting an addition of a religious preference in place that required that request be accompanied by a supporting 501(c)(3) religious organization. At the time, Cat and I were members of the Troth [a Heathen organization], and we hoped that they would be willing to work with us to get Ásatrú and Heathen added. They were, but the Army made a “mistake” and chose to put the Troth as our religious preference.

Josh Heath with his lovely daughter Lillian

The Army told us we would need to resubmit our request with an organization that had Ásatrú in its name. We were friendly with Vince Enlund, who at the time was Chieftain of the Asatru Alliance. We reached out to them, the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Troth and asked all three to willingly support this request together. The Asatru Folk Assembly outright refused. The Asatru Alliance agreed to work toward the greater purpose of having Heathens acknowledged by the US military. This was about 2010. We submitted a new request with documentation from both organizations and with a letter of support from over thirty Army service members who were willing to support the request. We were told that the Army was processing the request at first, but then after months and months of follow-up, they stated that the Department of Defense was working on a new system for these requests to be made through.

In 2012, right after I left Active Duty, I was told that the Department of Defense was going to take two to three years to get this system put in place by Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker [Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains]. We didn't give up, but we put an active campaign on the back burner. I occasionally reached out to Chaplain Walker to see what we could do to make the change happen and was told they were working it, but we would need soldiers on active duty to make the request, now that I was no longer enlisted.

Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker

In 2014, humanists won a lawsuit against the United States Army to get their religious preference added. This riled me up! I'd been working on this issue for Heathens for five years, and they still hadn't approved us! I threatened a lawsuit, politely, and even contacted the ACLU and the humanists that won their campaign to ask for some guidance on how to proceed. Chaplain Walker responded before the ACLU and said he was willing to work with me, if I could find some soldiers to push the request.

So, we put together a team of four soldiers. Christopher Gibat, Omar Bailey, Andrew Turner and Daniel Head. The four of these guys worked hard to make their administrations process their paperwork up the chain of command to make it to the Chaplains Corp and Human Resources Command. Daniel can tell you more about how he went about that process, but every one of these guys ran into problems along the way. Two were given Ásatrú, and two were given Heathen and told to request them up the chain. Daniel was made the POC [Point of Contact] for reaching out to Chaplain Walker, and regularly answering questions, and polite harassment. We finally were approved!

This approval required at least one meeting of higher-ranking chaplains discussing what Ásatrú and Heathen mean, what we believe, and how the addition will help soldiers. Then, Human Resources Command had to be brought in to approve a new coding system. The process went back and forth on those upper levels until they finally agreed that an approval for addition could be made. This is the “new and more efficient process,” too!

DH – Initially it started as just a Department of the Army form 4187 (Personnel Action) requesting Heathen be added as a religious preference code. My first “bump in the road” was a lower level Human Resources contractor saying the form had to be “reviewed for appropriateness,” to which I reminded him the review was for Colonel Walker with the Office of the Chief of Chaplains.

Army Form 4187

Once my form made it to the Group/Brigade level, I was fortunate enough that our chaplain at that level happened to know Chaplain Walker. He called me, asked a couple of questions for insight, and then sent my request directly to Chaplain Walker – skipping much of the normal process. Chaplain Walker was quick to call me, ask more questions, and then he requested for me to roll everything up into an email. He explained to me had to do his own “investigation” on the religion; recognized organizations, clergy training, and anything that may not be within the Army Values.

We had some back and forth sharing information over a couple of weeks, he looked into the information I gave him, and then he had to take the form-now-packet to a review board. From what he told me – and what I understood – the board went over the information to ensure nothing would go against the Army’s values (I imagine to avoid bad PR), then gave their recommendation for approval.

At that point, Chaplain Walker “signed off” on it, and it was passed to the Army G-1 [general at head of personnel department] for his review. I received a phone call from a Lieutenant Colonel who really just wanted some of the same emails Chaplain Walker requested. I sent it all over, then Army G-1 reviewed it. Now the true time-killing of bureaucracy kicked in as the packet waited for Army G-1’s signature. Upon his signature the process is finalized and added to the Army’s database via Human Resources Command.

KS – Why is this change important?

JH – The biggest impact is on current soldiers. This means soldiers can officially request to have their religious needs taken care of. Those needs are multifaceted. First, it will allow a soldier to request a day off for a religious event. As I see it, this is part of why the Open Halls Project was started. If a local community is hosting a worship event or a blót, then a soldier should have the right to request to attend. Having our religious preference recognized allows them support from the chaplain to request time to attend that event. This also allows for soldiers to create distinctive faith groups with other Heathens, which has been a difficult process without an official preference. We can also track the number of Heathens in the military, which is a huge win, because it means a soldier can walk into the Chaplains Office and find out how many other Heathens are on base with them.

These are all incremental changes. Sure, it might not seem like major life-changing things are occurring to some folks out there. But for the soldier that gets to go home for Midsummer now, it'll be a big change. For the soldiers that decide to make the first Distinctive Faith Group, it'll be a big deal. For the Heathens that get to proudly stand up and say, “I am a Heathen.” Something huge has happened here, and every change will hopefully make things better for us – less marginalized and more welcome to be a part of the discussions of faith in our society.

The change is impactful for former soldiers as well. They can now request to have Army Personnel Records accurately identify their religious preference. This would be helpful for former soldiers who might be looking to have an Ásatrú funeral down the road or request a Thor’s hammer from the VA for their headstone. They can also be counted among Heathens who have served.

Josh Heath (with beard) at Future of Force & Faith Roundtable
of 65th Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point (2013)

I'm hoping this will impact American society by helping show how important religious pluralism is to our nation. There is an extreme focus on the military as a conservative bastion. The truth is, though, a large portion of the enlisted ranks in the Army are largely apolitical on a day-to-day basis. As long as you can do your job, that is all that matters. Sure, there are officers and enlisted soldiers who don't always believe that, but there are enough that make a difference, that stand up for their soldiers on a daily basis and lead. This acknowledgement of the plurality of our military is a gateway into recognizing the plurality of America, of truly living the ideals of our highest law. In ancient times, Heathens saw the law as a holy extension of their reciprocal relationships with the gods and their community. The Constitution is our holy law, which we need to uphold it to keep our nation running strong. That means we need to embrace all members of our country, even with their flaws, and together we can inspire each other to greatness – united.

DH – There are hardly enough words to describe how monumental this change is. Some might ask, “But how many Heathen service members are there? What are the numbers?” Let’s say there is just one percent of the Army population who identifies as Heathen. That alone would be over five thousand enlisted soldiers. That doesn’t count our officers, civilians or contractors. That also doesn’t include the generations of retired personnel, or service members who have already passed, or those killed in action.

What exactly changes for us? From a day-to-day perspective, not much. This “not much” means being able to administratively identify as Heathen, being able to contact a chaplain and have he or she provide services, advice or counseling concurrent with the Heathen worldview. Most importantly, if a soldier dies overseas, upon return the chaplain can render funeral rites. Without Heathen or Ásatrú as a religious preference code, that leaves a soldier with the options of None, No Preference, or Other. Speaking with my unit chaplain, he explained to me that, as a chaplain, seeing any of these as a religious preference, he will default to a Christian-based program for the funeral rites. With Heathen being added, soldiers can change their religious preference, and if they fall in battle they can receive proper funeral rites.

For Americans as a whole, this shows that our military is open to the diversity of faith groups. There is, unfortunately, a poor public relations background for Heathens because of white supremacist groups. With a new light and an official acknowledgement of our religion as it is – not as it has been twisted – it can bring new education and opportunities for others to see, witness, feel and reconstruct our history.

KS – The Army now has three related religious preference options: Ásatrú, Heathen and the Troth. Why do you think it is important to have these three separate categories? Do you intend to work for the addition of other denominations such as Theodism and Urglaawe?

JH – Personally, I started the request as Ásatrú, because at the time I considered that to be a good explanation of my religious identity. However, as the years have gone by, I've begun to personally see Heathen as a more accurate identity marker. The Troth was never supposed to be on the list, but now that it is, I'm sure some folks might find that useful to them. Identity is such a mutable and personal thing, that it is, at times, difficult to have the most specific marker for everyone that has slightly different leanings. The Open Halls Project has made Ásatrú and Heathen the pair of options we have pushed for because they are the two largest identifiers used by people. Heathen is my personal preference, and I think its more universal. We will not be leading the charge to add any other terms until these two are added by all branches of the military.

Josh Heath's Thor figure and Mjölnir pendant

DH – I think these will all come in time, but they will also take a lot of work. I know a Christian chaplain who worked through the process of having his particular denomination added.

KS – How can current Army members have their preference changed?

JH – You will have to go to your local BN S1 shop to have your religious preference changed on your ERB/ORB. This may require you to make an appointment, or you may have to convince your leadership you have a valid reason for going. Demand it. You have the right to have this change made, and it has to be made at the BN level or higher.

Veterans need to contact Army Human Resources Command to request a change to their official record:
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
ATTN: AHRC-PDR-H / Department 420
1600 Spearhead Division Ave

Fort Knox KY 40122-5402 
Phone Number: 1-888-ARMYHRC
Families of deceased soldiers may contact the above to request a service member’s records be altered.

DH – For a service member to change their religious preference officially, it would take using a DA 4187, Personnel Action. Many Soldiers should be familiar with this form. Fill out your administrative information at the top, check “Other” and “Change Religious Preference to (insert preference),” and have it signed by your commander. I highly advise all Soldiers to contact their local HR representative – Training Room, Admin Clerk, or S1.

KS – How often does the Army release a public report on numbers of religious adherents in its ranks? Will we see an official number of Heathens?

JH – The last time the Army released this information was in 2009, because CNN requested the data for an article they were writing. As far as I know, the Army doesn't publicly release this data on a regular or irregular basis.

DH – I was working with my current unit chaplain to do a unit poll to see how many other people within my unit identify as Pagan, Wiccan, or any other natural/polytheistic faith group. It is possible at unit levels; however, he explained to me it would be very difficult and consume a lot of resources to do a poll on the entire Army. I would love to know total numbers, and I’m hopeful that some sort of numbers could be determined in the future.

KS – Since the 2013 interview with Josh and Cat, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs approved Thor’s hammer as a recognized grave marker, and the Air Force added Ásatrú to their religious preference list. This is the third major change in the United States Armed Forces. What's the next goal?

JH – To sea! The Navy (and therefore the Marines, as well) have not recognized Ásatrú or Heathen as religious preferences. So, we are going to do all we can to make that happen. The VA also has a list of religious preferences, so that list is something we are going to be fighting to get on as well. Though, to be honest. I personally might take a little break from pushing at the moment, but I'll fully support anyone who is wishing to push these requests.

Josh Heath at Student World Affairs Conference (Poughkeepsie, April 2014)

DH – One thing I’ve brought up with Chaplain Walker during all of this is a Department of Defense religious preference code database. As of right now, each branch of the military has its own database for religious preferences. I was baffled when I learned the Air Force had added Ásatrú, but it still wasn’t recognized by Army. Fortunately, he did inform me that this is an issue being addressed at higher levels. In fact, he said the plan is to merge into a DoD database, but right now preferences are added per military branch, and they’re being compiled at the DoD level to assess how to make a one-size-fits-all database.

I think another great milestone will be a knowledgeable, official Heathen chaplain. This will be an interesting milestone, considering the “tribal nature” of being Heathen and the different perspectives and interpretations out there.

KS – What have your interactions been with the Chaplains Corps since the 2013 interview?

JH – Personally, I have had little direct interaction with the Chaplains Corps since the interview, but I do know several individuals that have heard that we are making a name for ourselves by pushing this request. I'll take that as a win!

DH – As many of my previous answers have outlined, I’ve worked closely with Chaplain Walker during this process. I used the chaplain chain to get in touch with him – Battalion Chaplain, Group Chaplain. I’m even friends with a couple of chaplains from previous units whom I sought advice from during all of this.

KS – What is the latest on Heathen chaplains in the Army?

JH – Well, there are a few different folks working to become chaplains. At the moment, there are no Heathen organizations that I'm aware of that have the proper candidate who can immediately become an Army chaplain. That doesn't mean they won't ever, but at the moment things look pretty bleak for a Heathen chaplain happening. The Wiccans have been recognized for years now, and they still haven't had a chaplain. There is a gentleman we have been talking with who is a Naval officer working toward becoming a Chaplain. The gentleman we were working with in the Army has fallen off the face of the earth. No idea what has become of him, which is a shame, because we really thought he was on the way to making a huge splash!

KS – What are the current numbers for the Open Halls Project?

JH – Well, we've sincerely increased our profile since the 2013 interview. The Open Halls Project has hit 1,243 likes on Facebook, 422 members on our discussion group, and more and more people registered in our database. Overall, we've held steady in a lot of ways and made incremental increases in our membership and outreach. We have also decided to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We've been offered money every few months by different groups, and though we honestly have wanted to accept it, we didn't want to have to worry about the tax implications. So, we are putting together what we need to accept donations and potentially pay a volunteer to work our internet functions. On a personal note, the interview has helped me make some connections with folks that are interested in interfaith work, which I think is a very valuable thing.

Congratulations to Josh and Daniel for their accomplishment! For the latest developments on this story, visit the Open Halls Project's Facebook page.


Unknown said...

I'm in the Marine Corps, and would really appreciate seeing this come to pass, within the department if the Navy. Thank you for your hard work.
Odin with Us

mohnkern said...

As of today, the military now recognizes heathenism and asatru

Unknown said...

been trying to get in as a 56o asatru chaplain. sadly the army makes it all but imposible to serve my brothers.

Raudleggr said...

To this day heathen isn’t recognized in some units, mine being one of them same with my previous unit. I was told at FT Sill during AIT that my faith had been updated to Heathen, but when I got to my unit I found that to be false, and unable to be changed to Heathen as it wasnt in our system, yet we dug and found it as an active code available. My unit isnt far from where Heath was stationed according to a mutual friend

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