Occasionally, I hear from Pagan folk in the military. Typically, they have heard that I am former Air Force, and want to see if things were different now than when I was in the Armed Services.
I joined the Air Force in 1986. When I got my dog tags issued to me in Basic Training, I was asked for my religious preference. The purpose of this was to determine what last rites needed to be provided for my corpse-ified self in the event of my untimely (or timely – but that is a completely different thread of thought) death. I honestly did not care what went on to my tags, so I left it blank. I was raised by Protestant parents who did not go to church. I was interred in a Catholic boys’ school for purposes of high school education. Naturally, my rebellious teen-aged self was not about to enter either on to the list. Its not a compulsory field on the document, so I just left it blank.
Right around mid-1987, I discovered the wonderful joys of the Bulletin Board Services. Essentially, this were computers hosted over a phone line in someone’s home. It was through these BBSs that I came into contact with the concept of Paganism. Three local BBSs were my typical stomping grounds for discussions on topics that ranged from abortion rights to religious perspectives to whatever else you could dream of. Every once in a while, folks from these BBSs would get together somewhere in the local area and spend time together in a face-to-face manner. Many of my life-long friends I met this way. I have lost track of some of those folks – but I still retain friendships with many others.
Reading through a few Pagan books, I came to realize that my life-long reverence for Nature actually had a name – Wicca. Or so I had thought. There were some aspects of Wicca – particularly the ritual aspects – that did not appeal to me. But the fit was close enough. I started practicing with a local coven in the north Dallas area (which was quite a drive from where I was in west Fort Worth). In 1988, I went to the Consolidated Base Personnel Office (CBPO for short – think of a huge building that handles the Administrative functions for personnel all over the base. Sort of like a HUman Resources department for military folk), and request that my dog tags be reissued with the notation that I was “Wiccan”. While Wicca was described in the Chaplain’s Handbook, it was not listed as one of the religious choices for dog tags at CBPO. I queried the Chaplain’s office for assistance over my request. The result of my simple question was a new SBI check (Special Background Investigation process – this is done for individuals holding Security Clearances in the military) being processed against me.
One evening after I had gone to the Chaplain’s office, there was a knock on my barracks door. On the other side was a member of the Office of Special Investigations – the folks who clear military personnel for security clearances. He came inside, and started asking me questions about my interest in Satanism. I was confused. I was interested in Wicca, not Satanism. Our conversation was in an extremely adversarial tone. When I left for my assigned duty location (I worked deep nights), I found my supervisor waiting for me. Apparently no one on my shift wanted to work alone with a Satanist. So my supervisor was tasked with working with me for the night – he was an evangelical Christian. Over the course of a very busy evening, he talked with me about my new-found beliefs. Again, the conversation was extremely adversarial. The end result was my being moved to a different shift, where my three co-workers were all evangelical Christians. Needless to say, my three straight days of working with these folks resulted in being a nightmare for me.
I didn’t change my beliefs though. Instead of being open about what I believed, I learned to just let my fellow shift workers talk about their beliefs – and I just put my head down and did my job. The result of this was fairly predictable. I learned more about the UniSys 2200-level mainframe than anyone else I worked with. If there was trouble in the system – I was typically asked to come and assist in fixing the equipment. Slowly, the stigma of what I believed took a back seat to my knowledge of the system. And I relaxed…and told one of the newer folks what I was one evening.
The next morning, I was asked to hang around and wait for the Branch Officer to come in. I was dirty, my uniform was wrinkled, and I obviously needed sleep. So when I heard all this – I knew my appearance wasn’t going to help me. He pulled me and the female airman into his office and brought us both to attention. he asked her to repeat her allegation. Again, the claim I was a Satanist came out. I was asked to respond – I pointed out I was a Pagan. The major then made a statement I will never forget: “Airman [xxx]. I don’t care if Sargeant Van Hook is worshipping the Cooling units on the processing floor. He comes in, does his work, knows the systems nearly better than the Civil Engineers that are here to repair parts of the system. I would advise you to look towards achieving a similar work ethic here.” I figured I was off the hook. Except that I was asked to stay. When the door closed, the Major expressed sympathy for my position, but noted that I needed to keep things professional while on shift.
Eventually, I received orders processing me for an overseas assignment. I again brought up my request to change my dog tag status. Again I was denied. And I moved on to Sembach Air Base in Germany.
Arriving in Germany, I found myself completely cut off from other people that believed as I did. Or at least that’s how it felt. My co-workers were friendly. The people that lived in the same stairwell in Base Housing were extremely stand-offish. But eventually, I found an advert in the local English paper that helped soldiers and airmen find local events to attend and socialize at. The ad read along the lines of being a meeting of Pagans, Wiccans, and others of a like-mind, but referred to this group as a “Pagan Support Group”. I had reservations of what it was about – seeing something similar to an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. “Hi, I’m Tommy and I’m a Pagan.” “Hi Tommy!” The meeting was held at the Recreation Center just down the street from where I lived…so I did what any military person would do: I went on a recon mission for the first meeting. I found where the meeting was to be held, and I spent time doing anything I could to watch the people involved. What I found, both shocked me and made me very happy that I had come along.
[TO BE CONTINUED]