Toil, trouble for wiccans at Army base in Texas

After two years of peaceful obscurity, Army witches are denounced by Christian leaders and a congressman

Los Angeles Times/June 8, 1999
By Hanna Rosin

Killeen, Texas -- Every full moon for the past two years, a few dozen off-duty soldiers have gathered at an open campsite at Fort Hood, America's largest military post. By day, they are privates and sergeants in the U.S. Army, training for deployment to Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo. But at these lunar assemblies they trade in their Army fatigues for hooded robes, chant to the lead of their chosen high priestess, and dance around a fire well into the night.

They are America's first official Army witches, with all that double duty implies: buzz cuts and pentagram rings, moon tattoos under uniforms. One typical dog tag reads:

NAME: Philip Campanaro. UNIT: USAG III Corps.

After two years in peaceful obscurity, the Fort Hood wiccans -- their beliefs a blend of pre-Christian paganism and New Age earth worship -- suddenly find themselves amid a brewing controversy. Last month, a photograph of one of their moonlit rituals made it into the local papers, leading some national Christian leaders and one congressman to begin denouncing their practices as satanic.

Now the witches are forced to confront a question their predecessors faced since the dawn of Christianity: Should they retreat into secret covens, or try their luck in the open market of America's scattered spirituality? The military, in the meantime, finds itself explaining what until now has been a little known but routine lifestyle policy: supporting soldiers who want to practice what the military calls, without passing judgment, "minority" religions.

Two summers ago, the Army approved the Fort Hood Open Circle as its first official wiccan group. Without much fanfare, Fort Hood officials gave them a grassy campsite for their sacred ground, sanctioned their choice of high priestess -- even loaned them an Army chaplain for moral support.

Twice a week, the wiccans hold evening classes on subjects such as lunar cycles and the meaning of a coven. On full moons and eight sacred holidays, they and dozens more witches from the surrounding area watch the high priestess lift her dagger over a ball of salt and honor the blessed earth. The events are posted on base and open to anyone interested. Except for a handful of letters from irate fundamentalist Christians in nearby Killeen, the rituals attracted little notice until recently.

Then in March, they invited a photographer to witness their Spring Rite ceremony. Several weeks later, the Austin American-Statesman ran photos of the high priestess and several others leaping over the campfire, the men shirtless, the women in witchy robes. Within days, Christian groups were calling the base and threatening to stage a march in town and disrupt the rituals, forcing the Army to beef up security around the campsite.

Since then, witch skittishness has spread as far as Washington. "Please stop this nonsense now," Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr., R-Ga., wrote to Lt. Gen. Leon S. Leponte, the commanding officer of Fort Hood. "What's next? Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"

Barr is threatening hearings and legislation, yet so far the Army brass at Fort Hood is shrugging. In the new equal-opportunity military, where diversity is strength, minority religions are not merely tolerated but welcomed. As long as a group does not interfere with discipline, the military will help it find an off-base leader and a place to practice its beliefs, explained Fort Hood spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Santos.

To date, no other group as offbeat as the wiccans has asked for approval. But the Army's Handbook for Chaplains lists a few of the myriad possibilities open to soldiers: Church of Satan, Black Judaism, Scientology, Temple of Set -- all candidates for potential approval, considered case by case.

Far from clashing cultures, the wiccans and the military coexist cheerfully. To the Army, the wiccans are part of a proud American tradition, proof that "people with different religious beliefs are all working together successfully," said Santos, role models to fractured nations like Bosnia and Kosovo. To the wiccans, the military is an adopted home, far more tolerant than the narrow, bigoted world outside. "Most people think of (soldiers) as mindless robots who kill babies," said Marcy Palmer, the Fort Hood high priestess. "But we see more discrimination in the civilian world. The military is actually much more sensitive."

The Fort Hood Open Circle was conceived in a practical moment, when a group of wiccans outgrew their living room meeting space. A staff sergeant among them asked the Army for help and looked into the requirements for official recognition. They needed an off-base sponsor, and chose the Sacred Well Congregation of San Antonio. They needed a high priestess to lead them and selected Palmer.

Palmer was raised a witch in Seattle, and the lifestyle is as familiar to her as breakfast cereal. Without a written guide like the Bible, the many varieties of wicca follow in common a version of the golden rule: "An ye harm none, do what ye will." Most wiccans worship Mother Earth and Father Sky. And no, she said, they don't sacrifice animals or cast evil spells.

At the twice-a-week classes, they work through the difficulties of life as an Army witch. Wiccans, to give one glaring example, are pacifists. Yet many of them fought in Desert Storm and are likely to be shipped to war zones again.

David Oringsderff, a 30-year Army vet and founder of Sacred Well, the Open Circle's sponsoring congregation, tried to explain the contradiction. Christians, he pointed out, also believe thou shalt not kill. In his view, the wiccans are at least more honest: They believe everything they do comes back at them threefold, so they prepare to pay a price. "We accept responsibility for our actions and don't have the devil to blame things on," Oringsderff said. Wiccan soldiers may kill in the line of duty, "but with no malice in our hearts and no pleasure in the act."

Such descriptions of peace-loving wiccans rankle some local Christians. "Everyone thinks they're such sweet, lovely people," said the Rev. Jack Harvey, who runs the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Killeen. But Harvey, who prides himself on his church's strictness -- no dancing or drinking, no Halloween or Santa Claus or Easter Bunny -- knows better. He has compiled a hand-scrawled list of relevant Scripture entitled "Witchcraft is Wicked."

"God says, 'Suffer not a witch to live,' " he said. "We would like to see them saved, but God doesn't change his mind." Over the summer, Harvey is writing letters, planning protests, calling every member of Congress he knows. "We need to stop them," he said. "We're not going to quit until they're gone."

In the two years since Fort Hood approved wiccans, open circles have popped up at other military bases: Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Wainwright in Alaska, Kadena Base in Okinawa and Fort Barrancas in Florida. A high priestess was just approved in Germany, and another has applied on the Kosovo mission.

"We are at the end of one age and the beginning of another," said Palmer at a Wednesday class. "Our time has finally come."

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