MADISON, Wis. – Since Korean War veteran Jerome Birnbaum died in 2005, his grave in a pagan cemetery had been marked with only a pile of stones and U.S. flags.
On Memorial Day, Birnbaum's grave and those of other military veterans will be dedicated with government-issued markers etched with a symbol of their religion — the Wiccan pentacle.
Wiccans sued the government last year, arguing that it was unduly stalling a decision on whether to add the pentacle to the list of acceptable symbols for veterans' graves.
A settlement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Wiccans added the five-pointed star to the list of "emblems of belief."
"I like to see our success literally etched in stone, because it will be," said Birnbaum's wife, Karen DePolito. She said winning the fight is vindication for all Wiccans.
Half of her husband's ashes were scattered outside their house in Utah, while the rest were interred in a cemetery at Circle Sanctuary, one of the nation's largest Wiccan churches.
Circle Sanctuary, located in Barneveld, Wisconsin, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Madison, will be home to three grave markers — more than any other place in the country, high priestess Selena Fox said.
Arlington National Cemetery will have two markers. A World War II veteran's marker was dedicated Wednesday, and a ceremony for another Wiccan veteran was planned for July 4, Fox said.
The VA said five pentacle markers have been delivered since the April 23 settlement with one more requests pending. Fox said she knows of 12 requests that are going to be made to the VA.
The VA now permits nearly 40 symbols, ranging from the pentacle to commonly recognized symbols for Christianity and Islam.
Wicca is a nature-based religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Variations of the pentacle not accepted by Wiccans have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.
Among those attending the dedications will be Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005 when the Nevada Army National Guard helicopter he was in was shot down. Stewart's ashes were mostly scattered, but some are at the Wiccan cemetery.
"To me it shows that our Veterans Administration is hopefully going to think twice before they discriminate the next time," she said of the settlement. "They don't get to pick and choose our soldiers' faith."
The widow of a third veteran receiving a marker, A. Douglas Wilkey, also planned to be at Monday's ceremony. Wilkey, who died in 2003, served in both Korea and Vietnam.
Ceremony attendees will gather at the church — a former dairy barn — and then proceed to the cemetery at the top of a hill overlooking the Wisconsin wilderness. At the gravesites, Fox said she will perform a Wiccan blessing on the new markers.
At the end, a large circle will be formed to honor deceased veterans, Fox said.