Practicing their old-time religion

Austin American-Statesman/May 11, 1999
By Kim Sue Lia Perkes

Killeen -- The robed high priestess turned her back to the fire, faced a makeshift outdoor altar and blessed the essentials of life: water, bread and salt.

"Great goddess Freya, bless this creature of the Earth to your service," she recited, after placing the shiny blade of her dagger over a small bowl of salt. "May we always honor the blessed Earth, its many forms and beings."

The congregation, holding hands in a circle around the fire, replied in refrain: "Great Freya be you adored."

This Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox didn't take place in some secret spot in the woods. The site was Fort Hood, and most of the witches were active-duty Army.

On the U.S. military's largest installation, more than 40 witches, male and female, celebrated the Rite of Spring on March 20, the day of equal daylight and darkness that symbolizes the witches' goal of perfect balance.

Their on-post ceremony was possible because three years ago, Fort Hood's top brass recognized Wicca as a legitimate faith, making it the first U.S. military base to provide space for neo-pagan rituals.

The Wiccans, whose religion is a reconstruction of nature worship from tribal Europe and other parts of the world, had to meet the same criteria as other religions to conduct services on the base, including sponsorship by a legally incorporated church, in this case one in San Antonio.

Fort Hood worked hard to understand and accommodate the Wiccans, said Col. Jerome Haberek, a Catholic priest and head chaplain of III Army Corps, which includes 75,000 soldiers stationed at Fort Hood and other posts worldwide. "We kind of struggled through," he said.

Following Fort Hood's lead, other U.S. military bases around the world have sanctioned Wicca. The top chaplains at Fort Hood are considered the military's experts on the religion, fielding calls from base chaplains and even the chief chaplain's office at the Pentagon.

Because of the volume of requests, the Fort Hood chaplain's office keeps a packet of information handy to mail out, said Lt. Col. Donald Troyer, a chaplain who oversees the post's Wiccan group, called Fort Hood Open Circle. Thousands of witches

In the past two decades, Wicca's popularity has grown steadily, along with the Earth-centered spirituality of the New Age movement.

The Covenant of the Goddess in Berkeley, Calif., one of the oldest incorporated Wiccan organizations, estimates there are 50,000 adherents in the United States.

It's difficult to gauge the religion's reach in the military. Defense Department statistics on the religious preferences of members place Wiccans under the "other" category, which represents less than 2 percent of those in the armed forces. The category includes Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and followers of American Indian faiths. But Pentagon officials said they believe many Wiccans are among the 28 percent who claim no preference.

At Fort Hood, where 42,000 soldiers are stationed, the Open Circle has more than 300 members, about 100 of them regular attendees, said Army veteran Marcy K. Palmer of Killeen. Palmer is a deaconess in the Sacred Well Congregation of San Antonio that sponsors the Fort Hood Open Circle.

Fort Hood is so popular among Wiccans that some want assurances from recruiters that they will be stationed at the post.

Pfc. Marion Lloyd of Alexandria, La., said he was one of them, though he does not advertise his religious preference. "I'm still not comfortable putting it on my dog tags yet," he said.

Palmer and Sacred Well founder and high priest David Oringderff of San Antonio have helped set up congregations at Fort Polk, La.; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Kadena Air Base in Okinawa; and Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Fla. Sacred Well is opening congregations on bases in North Carolina, New York, New Mexico, Guam and Germany, said Oringderff, a psychologist who retired as an Army major in 1995 after 22 years of service.

A touchy subject

From Fort Hood to the Pentagon, officials are reluctant to talk about how the armed forces are accommodating neo-paganists.

"It's such a volatile subject," Troyer said. "It just sparks a fury."

Troyer, a Seventh-day Adventist, has faced guilt by association from other military personnel and a cool response from some of the post's other 95 chaplains, he said.

For almost two years, fundamentalist Christians from communities near Fort Hood showed up at the Open Circle's ritual site at the post Boy Scout camp to protest. The chaplain's office responded by beefing up security, Troyer said. Parts of the 335-square-mile post are open to the public.

"We were thankful when it was finally over," recalled Pfc. Michael Bourque, an Open Circle member. "They stopped coming in August or September."

A letter-writing campaign to Fort Hood's commander also did not sway the post's commitment to accommodating the spiritual needs of its Wiccan soldiers.

"My God, the general got letters that were strongly worded," Troyer said.

Most of the letters came from congregants at the Tabernacle Baptist Church and School in Killeen, at the urging of their pastor, the Rev. Jack Harvey.

"I have no tolerance for evil or people who do evil," Harvey said. "We don't think anybody in the Army or otherwise should be in favor of witchcraft. The Bible states explicitly, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' "

Troyer said it's that kind of reaction, fueled by popular myths about witchcraft, that he must combat. "I still get calls from people asking me if they kill babies out there."

Navy Capt. Russell Gunter, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board at the Pentagon, said the military is obligated to respect and make provisions for the religious needs of its members without passing judgment on their beliefs.

Haberek, the III Corps head chaplain, agreed.

"You know, I raised my right hand when I came in the Army to support and defend the Constitution, and that's what I'm doing, defending the constitutional right of soldiers and family members."

Earth-based religion

Wicca adherents celebrate eight major sabbats, festivals that mark the change of seasons and agricultural cycles, and believe in both god and goddess. There are many branches of Wicca, just like there are many Protestant denominations.

"One of the roots for the term Wicca means 'to bend,' " said Derek Collins, who teaches a course on the history of witchcraft at the University of Texas.

"I think the reason they are interested in it is it's empowering and gives them a sense of control over their own lives," he said.

But some conservative religious leaders, including the Rev. David Lucus of First Baptist Church of Oak Hill, warn of hidden dangers. "People can be drawn in real easy to what appears on the surface as just another way for people to get together and have fun. Suddenly, it becomes a struggle to maintain one's own individuality from the spirits they are dealing with."

Because Wiccans face so much opposition, some practice their faith alone. Others join covens or small communities of witches that are closed to the public.

Many of the soldiers said they found Wicca after long spiritual journeys. Others said they stumbled into it.

Retired Lt. Cols. Marie and Ron Smith thank a born-again Christian for leading them to Wicca.

"It started out as a joke," Marie Smith said. "My husband has a friend who is a born-again Christian who was trying to convert everyone, so my husband came up with this story."

Ron Smith told his friend he worshipped the hardwoods. "No softwoods," Smith recalled. "Just hardwoods."

Marie Smith said her husband just kept making things up from there. "It went on and on, and then another friend said if you really want to get her going, read this book."

It was on Wicca. Ron Smith read it. "He says, 'Marie, read this. This is us,' " she said. Now, Ron Smith is the Open Circle's high priest. A gathering of branches

One of the challenges of the Open Circle is that it brings together people from different branches of Wicca. To keep harmony, the group rotates rituals from different traditions.

At the vernal equinox, for instance, it used a Nordic service. In April, the sabbat was celebrated in the Celtic tradition. On May 1 it celebrated the marriage of the god and goddess in the Greencraft branch, which comes from a newer tradition founded in the early 1960s.

Palmer, a Celtic shaman who is the official high priestess for the circle, appoints acting high priests and priestesses to conduct ceremonies. Palmer served more than six years in the Army and now is a civilian nurse at the Fort Hood hospital.

Acting high priestess and priest Jennifer and Denson Flowers conducted the Nordic service that ushered in the rebirth of spring. She leaves for Army basic training May 12. He was medically discharged in 1994 after a drunken driver cost him a leg.

Denson Flowers asked the witches to write their dreams on a piece of paper. "So tonight they can be planted just like the seeds . . . and they may grow true with time."

He placed his dagger over the chalice of wine.

"We all come from the god and to him we shall return," Flowers recited. "We all come from the goddess and to her we shall return."

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