Heathens Continue Push for Military Recognition

Along with Sikhs, Humanists, homosexuals, and transgenders, another group seeking “official” US military recognition is heathens. Writing at Religion News Service, Kimberly Winston — normally RNS’s atheist hired writer — recounts the stories of self-described military heathens who want to put “heathen” on their dog tags:

Jeremiah McIntyre wants to be called a Heathen.

The 38-year-old Army sergeant follows the old Norse religion Asatru, in which the god Thor swings his hammer in the sky and Odin rules a heavenly place called Valhalla. Should McIntyre die, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would allow a hammer of Thor on his tombstone.

But the Army does not otherwise currently recognize the active-duty soldier’s faith…

That much is true, as has been previously discussed more than once. Winston then digresses into what she perceives as affronts to the unrecognized heathen masses: 

He can’t organize or attend Heathen services on base without special permission, he can’t receive prayer or counseling from a Heathen chaplain, and if he were to die in the service he would probably end up with a nondenominational Christian burial.

Like every soldier of every religion, McIntyre can talk to a chaplain and organize and attend any kind of religious service he wants. He requires no special permission. A military chaplain can also refer him to a heathen faith leader for “prayer or counseling” — should one even exist or be known, which is a limitation beyond the military’s control. That’s the same response any other soldier would get if he requested such services and his local chaplains weren’t of that faith group.  If a heathen soldier were to “die in the service,” he would “probably end up with” a burial service consistent with his family’s wishes (as in other cases); the military doesn’t perform administrative burials except in rare circumstances.

The one thing that might be affected is the one thing Winston fails to mention: Were a self-described heathen to die in a war zone, his local unit would likely perform a memorial service. It might be difficult for a unit chaplain to flavor a downrange memorial service with a heathen flair, though these memorial services have become increasingly areligious anyway.  The absence of that particular issue from the article makes is questionable the soldiers involved thought of it, potentially because they haven’t experienced it themselves.

Former US Army Soldier Josh Heath, previously noted, continued the not-always-accurate story of persecution:

“If you have a (recognized) religious preference you can have a religious holiday,” Heath said. “At basic training, it would allow them to have a religious book — you are allowed only one. And if they had Heathen as a choice, they could have an actual Heathen ritual for their burial.”

That’s not precisely true. Having a “(recognized) religious preference” does not grant anyone a religious holiday. After all, “atheist” is already a recognized religious preference, and it is highly unlikely they’d be granted a religious holiday just for that reason. Nor does it have anything to do with books in basic training. (There are quite a few stories available about basic trainees having “interesting” books, including one self-described heathen and even once-infamous atheist Justin Griffith, who said he successfully took The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to basic.) And, again, the ritual one has at their burial has nothing to do with their declared belief system. The military performs ceremonies at the request of families.  Besides, there are plenty of religious preference codes for which the US military has no internal support, anyway.  (How does Heath think the military performs atheist burials, for example?)

Interestingly, Heath took a little umbrage at the special treatment given to humanists [emphasis added]:

The men say they felt frustrated last year when the Army added humanism to its list of recognized religions…

“That really riled me up,” Heath said. “The frustrating thing for me is we started this before the humanists were even on my radar. What spurred this most recent push to get Heathen added is that humanism got approved.”

In other words, they got it, so we want it, too.  And since they used the media for attention…  The fact this should again be a news story so soon after the one last month may be because a heathen soldier actually tried to make it a story [emphasis added]:

The group is redoubling its efforts for Army recognition with a petition and a letter-writing campaign. Some, like McIntyre, are reaching out to media to tell their stories.

In the end, Heath and McIntyre are somewhat making a mountain out of a molehill. It would seem the only thing a heathen lacks in the US Army is the ability to put the word “heathen” on his dog tags, which, at its worst, might influence the tone of a war zone memorial service. Still, there is little reason for the Army to resist such an administrative change, either, as the official faith group codes are little more than an administrative marker for personnel records.  Arguably, both sides are making this a bigger deal than it is.

After all, as Winston notes, the Air Force has already permitted heathenism to be placed in administrative records, and that change has not suddenly created heathenist chapel services, chaplains, or military burial services — despite Heath’s apparent claims.

It is possible these increasing demands for new faith group codes inspired the moratorium on new ones earlier this year, meaning Heath and others might be victims of others’ success. Perhaps the outcome of the military’s review will be that anything can be put in the faith group code in a soldier’s record.

Ultimately, that would probably be the easiest and most equitable option, and it would apparently give Heath, McIntyre, and other heathens precisely what they’re asking for.

Given some of their complaints, though, it seems they may not even understand what they’re asking for.

Repeated at the Washington Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

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2 comments

  • Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your interest in the article and our push to have Heathen added to the religious preference system in the Army.

    I’d like to politely address a few points you’ve made in your blog post. Keep in mind, much of what we discussed with the Author, was done through the military to civilian filter. (Which I think we both know is sometimes an interesting game of telephone)

    “Like every soldier of every religion, McIntyre can talk to a chaplain and organize and attend any kind of religious service he wants. He requires no special permission.”

    This may officially be true, however, from personal experience it is incredibly difficult to organize a religious service without having one’s faith in the religious preference list. For one, you have to convince a Chaplain you have a legitimate faith to begin with, having no rel pref, or other in place of an actual recognized code is an immediate deterrent. Second, you have to prove their are enough members of your faith to warrant the space. This can be done without having such codes present, but again, the process becomes easier when a Chaplain can verify that there are a certain number of individuals on base of a specific religious preference to warrant that space being set aside.

    “A military chaplain can also refer him to a heathen faith leader for “prayer or counseling” — should one even exist or be known, which is a limitation beyond the military’s control. That’s the same response any other soldier would get if he requested such services and his local chaplains weren’t of that faith group.”

    This is again, true. However, it becomes easier to establish a database of lay leaders near a military post when a religious faith code is in place to organize such data. My wife and I actually requested to be placed on such a list while at one military base, and can verify this was not done because a soldier requested said information for the same Chaplain we left our contact details with. It might not have helped to be in the official database, but it couldn’t have hurt either.

    “Were a self-described heathen to die in a war zone, his local unit would likely perform a memorial service.” ” The absence of that particular issue from the article makes is questionable the soldiers involved thought of it, potentially because they haven’t experienced it themselves.”

    Attempting to explain the nuance between the memorial service a unit performs (a ritual I have sadly had to perform during my time on active duty) and an official funeral was outside of the discussion I had with the author of the article. My intent, was to explain this issue quickly so many would understand the idea, without needing to go into the weeds of how the military performs memorial and burial services.

    “Having a “(recognized) religious preference” does not grant anyone a religious holiday.”

    You and I both know you are absolutely right. Again, I was more nuanced in how I stated this initially with the reporter. It was something more along the lines of, “If you have an official religious preference it becomes easier to request leave for a specific religious event.” I won’t say the quote was out of context, I was again, filtering my statement to be understood in a more general way.

    You quote my story of having my copy of the Poetic Edda in basic. There are other heathens that had theirs taken away. Being on the religious preference list would assist a heathen soldier by lending credence to their statement that their copy of that text is a legitimate religious book. Since I attended BCT, there seems to have been a bit of a relaxation on the harshness this rule was enforced. Again, I wanted to think of another clear example a civilian readership would understand for a point where this request may assist a soldier.

    “In other words, they got it, so we want it, too. And since they used the media for attention… The fact this should again be a news story so soon after the one last month may be because a heathen soldier actually tried to make it a story [emphasis added]:”

    What you seem to be unaware of, is we’ve been pushing for this for 6 years. We have processed the paperwork multiple times, and have run into a series of bizarre issues that have stalled the process. We got upset, because we were told all requests were being halted, and then the humanism request was approved. We then were told our request was moving forward, and was even approved. We wanted that to be a story, because incidentally, we’ve jumped through every hoop placed before us, and we have tried to do so quietly and respectfully to end up in the limbo we are still in.

    “It would seem the only thing a heathen lacks in the US Army is the ability to put the word “heathen” on his dog tags, which, at its worst, might influence the tone of a war zone memorial service.”

    Ironically, this has nothing to do with dog tags, as per regulation anything can be placed in the religion section of one’s dog tags. I have Asatru(another term for heathen) on mine. Many heathens have heathen there already. We want our official religious preference to be present on our EBR/ORB.

    “Still, there is little reason for the Army to resist such an administrative change, either, as the official faith group codes are little more than an administrative marker for personnel records. Arguably, both sides are making this a bigger deal than it is.”

    Effectively, we agree here. The fact the Army has dug their heels in here, is ridiculous. This means a lot to us, but generally means nothing to those it wont directly effect.

    I do understand what we are asking for, and it will have an impact for us in ways you probably can’t fathom as Christian. You’ve likely never faced the sort of discrimination we occasionally run into, and I’m glad you haven’t. We are asking for this administrative change, largely to ensure that we have the beginning of legitimacy to ensure that further discrimination is limited as much as possible. It’s no guarantee, of course, but its a small step toward the open and pluralistic military focused on the mission, and not on what particular faith to which each soldier adheres.

    Formatting edited for clarity.

    • @Josh Heath

      Appreciate the feedback, and your comment about civ/mil translation is granted.

      There may be limitations to how the DoD can use the faith group code list which may undercut the value you have given it. One of the main points above is that adding “heathen” to your records isn’t a panacea to the list of issues you seem to describe. But your point that it’s “something” is understood.

      Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, or any other religious faith, we can “fathom” religious freedom fairly well. Religious freedom doesn’t mean the Army is going to hire a “heathen chaplain” anytime soon, but it does mean that troops get to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs — regardless what they are.

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