Another veterans’ day is upon us. A day where all the fast-food joints around me will be offering free items for me to eat. My local coffee house is offering a free small coffee to thank me for my service. My local Whataburger is offering a small French-fries with any purchase. ::big sigh:: I won’t partake in any of the offers though. I’m not being unappreciative of the offer, its just that accepting free things for the eight years I spent in the military….is not something I am comfortable doing. I served eight years in the Air Force. Those years were formative in becoming the adult that I am now, as well as the Pagan that I am today.
It was the Air Force that taught me to do bulldog problems at the job to ensure that the part of the daily mission that my squadron was responsible for were completed in a timely manner. It was the Air Force that helped develop the troubleshooting skills that I have. It was the Air Force that taught me to use what I had on hand to get something working again and worry about repairing it later in the right way when I had the right materials on-hand. I violated more regulations than I care to admit to, just to ensure that things would work when the mission called for it. Because I know that lives could potentially be on the line. That work attitude has carried over into my professional life, not that it seems to ever be appreciated by those individuals that are in positions of authority above me.
In those same eight years, I was on the front lines of fighting for the rights of the Pagans of today in the military. When I was deployed overseas, it was the first time in my younger years of Paganism that I was on my own. No coven. No High Priest and High Priestess nudging me back on to the Path prescribed by the Tradition. I was on my own. My direction was my own choosing. For me, it was a scary and (often) very lonely time. Much of my free time was spent walking in the woods directly behind Kapaun Air Station. Thick woods, as tends to be the case throughout the wooded areas of Germany. Old woods. It was in these woods that I first encountered a Spirit of Place. Another moment that was jarring for a fledgling Pagan. A moment that has always stayed at the forefront of my memories. A moment that I still have dreams about. During the three years that I was stationed in Germany (Kaiserslautern Military Community), I learned more about being on my own with my personal Spiritual practice (I still detest the sound of this phrase). I did interface with other Pagans, but all of them came from very different perspectives from my own. At best, we were a confederation of individuals who all approached our Paganism in very different ways.
In those three years, I helped with approaching the Ramstein Air Base chaplaincy about allowing a Pagan group access to chapel space for the purpose of holding public ritual. Eventually, we were granted that privilege. However, some of the conversations were contentious with the Chaplain’s office. There were doubts about the legitimacy of what we believed. So, we pointed the chaplain’s to Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin. Selena Fox (and others, I assume) helped calm the fears and doubts of the Chaplaincy. Our first night together for public ritual, turned out to be my next to last with these folks. A second ritual was held later on one of the Army Kaserne’s, but in a warehouse space. Over time, there occurred the typical power struggles, as well as one individual declaring all of the Pagans that had banded together as a “Wiccan coven under his control.” That led to a lot of us removing ourselves from the group – Pagans, a Santerian Priestess who had joined in solidarity, Wiccans of a different stripe from his, Druids, Ceremonial Magicians – so as not to be lumped into a category or affiliation of what we weren’t. About four months after this, I departed the Air Force and returned back to the United States.
Another military cause that I added myself to was petitioning the leadership at the Pentagon to allow for the terminology of “Pagan”, “Wiccan”, “Druid” – among others – to be placed on our dog tags. The purpose of placing your religious affiliation on your dog tags is to assist the Chaplain’s office for what rites to perform for you, in the event of your untimely death in battlefield conditions. When I originally joined the service in 1986, I was given a list of options to place on my dog-tags for religious affiliation. At that time, I wasn’t a Pagan, but that wasn’t an option. I chose “Other” because I didn’t know. Once I came to realize I was a Pagan, I found I couldn’t add my affiliation to a new set of dog-tags. Pagans were not the only ones that were approaching the Pentagon leadership over a need to change this engraved line on the dog-tags. Eventually, the military service relented, and service members were allowed to provide that line with whatever affiliation they desired. When I left the military service, I surrendered my dog-tags at my final separation, ignorant of the fact that I could keep them if I had wanted. Thus, sadly, I do not have my “Pagan” dog-tags.
Looking back, the eight years of my life that I provided in service to the United States’ military were a mixed bag of success and failure. But the successes far outweigh the failures. I fondly remember a time where the members of the Pagan Support Group (what an awkward name we decided upon) helped clean a wooded area of Ramstein Air Base next to the on-base Burger King. We all rolled up our sleeves, put on gloves, and bagged trash for pickup. No fanfare. No advertisement of our efforts. Just pitching in and getting it done, so our local community had one less trash infested area. I can see the faces of so many people that I spent time with during those three years in Germany. I also recall the hard times at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, when I first became public about who I was. The times that my room was searched without announcement or when I was on-shift at my duty assignment. The way that my co-workers suddenly equated me with evil. How I was placed on a shift with three Evangelical preachers because no other shift wanted me working with them. The long interviews with members of the Office of Special Investigations. The threats of pulling my security clearance, which would have effectively ended my military career. Like I said, those eight years were a mixed bag.
My time in the Air Force helped me to grow up and become an adult. I was given responsibilities that helped me to understand that consequences always arise when you neglect the responsibilities that you have. Those eight years also taught me a lot about being solo in my Spiritual responsibilities. How difficult it can be to do things on your own. As well as how rewarding it can be to accomplish things through your own efforts.
I’m chuffed about the eight years I gave in service to this country. It might be a little tarnished compared to the stellar service and approach of others, but I don’t give a shit about that. I bent rules, broke laws, and improvised my way to ensure that the mission was accomplished. I am most proud that I always managed to make things work out, even if it was in the most unconventional manner. I can say the same about those early years of my Paganism. I started out in a coven environment with people I still – for the most part – still talk to today. They were there at the beginning. They will always be family for me. My three years overseas provided an avenue for me to do things on my own. To be able to walk the deep, thick forest on my own, off the beaten Path.
I do, occasionally, wonder how different my Paganism would be had I never been deployed to Germany in the early 1990s, away from the coven I was part of. Would I have stayed on a Wiccan Path? Would I have remained within a group? Would I have never found my way to doing things on my own? I’m never sure of what the answers to those questions would be, but that’s a what-if game that never really produces worthwhile results. I am who I am, what I am because of the experiences that I have had over the thirty-plus years I have been within Paganism. Certainly, I don’t fit the criteria of what some others believe I should be, as a Pagan or Druid, but these are my footsteps – not theirs.
3 thoughts on “Thinking About: Those Formative Years of My Pagan Approach in the US Air Force”
Happy Veteran’s Day!
I think it’s pretty crazy (in a good way) the things and the experiences you’ve had as a pagan, especially being one in the military before it was as acceptable or maybe just tolerated (?) like it is now.
My uncle and his daughter served in the USAF (my dad, granddad, and other uncle were US Army) and he was the one who always tried to recruit me as a child…and a teen…and a young adult, lol. 😄
Sometimes I wonder how things in my life might be different had I followed his advice when I was younger.
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Well, when I was in (1986-1994) anything outside of the mainstream beliefs was all that was typically accepted within the ranks. Chapel servvices were geared towards those beliefs alone, which was understandable. Folks in those mainstream beliefs made up over 95% of the rank and file. The Chapel system was (and still is, I’ve come to understand) geared towards the largest segments of the ranks. All we were petitioning for was physical space within the Chapel system to hold our rituals, since it was against military regulations to hold religious services within military housing. All we wanted was fair access.
All of it sounds really exciting, but in reality it wasn’t. We weren’t doing combat in the streets of the military base with the Chapel Service or those that opposed us. The HUGE portion of it all was endless meetings with the Chaplaincy, Base Command, our various squadron commands – all to explain the same things over and over and over again. once I left the military and re-entered the corporate world, all of that seemed like preparation for the endless project meetings I had to attend, most of which were held just to be held. 🙂
My father was Air Force, as was one of my uncles. Two of my uncles went Navy. One of my cousins was Army during the same time frame I was Air Force. My brother-in-law was a career JAG officer in the Navy, which I guess has been helpful in his career as a politician.
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What if we replaced Veterans Day with Ancestors Day or Spiritual Guide Day? Then we could say ‘Thank You’ to our Familial and Spiritual Ancestors. We could take our mentors, spiritual guides, and grandparents out for a free coffee or order of fries.
My time in the Marines in the late 80’s and early 90’s was also my first formal venture as a Pagan, but that equated to simply claiming ‘No Preference’ on my dog tags which was the boldest statement I had made up to that point. I never made an effort to outwardly assert my beliefs, I just didn’t see any outcome that would be beneficial to myself or anyone else. I’m glad you were able to and hope that others will do so. It has to start somewhere.