RENO, Nev. – The widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan won state approval Wednesday to place a Wiccan religious symbol on his memorial plaque, something the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had refused.
"I'm honored and ecstatic. I've been waiting a year for this," Roberta Stewart said from her home in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno.
Sgt. Patrick Stewart, 34, was killed in Afghanistan last September when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter. Four others also died. Stewart was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
He was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize and therefore prohibits on veterans' headstones in national cemeteries.
But state officials said they had received a legal opinion from the Nevada attorney general's office that concluded federal officials have no authority over state veterans' cemeteries. They now plan to have a contractor construct a plaque with the Wiccan pentacle — a circle around a five-pointed star — to be added to the Veterans' Memorial Wall in Fernley.
"The VA still has not determined yet if a Wiccan symbol can go on the headstone," said Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. "But we have determined we control the state cemetery and that we therefore have the ability to recognize him for his service to his country."
Wiccans worship the earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves good witches, pagans or neo-pagans.
The Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration allows only approved emblems of religious beliefs on government headstones. Over the years, it has approved more than 30, including symbols for the Tenrikyo Church, United Moravian Church and Sikhs. There is also an emblem for atheists.