Monday, October 3, 2011

Wiccan widow takes struggle to D.C.

While families celebrate the nation's independence with barbecues and fireworks, a Nevada soldier's widow continues her fight for a veteran's memorial plaque that recognizes her husband's Wiccan religion.

Roberta Stewart of Fernley will be the Fourth of July guest speaker at an interfaith religious rights rally a couple of blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C.

Stewart's husband, Nevada Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, died Sept. 25 when the Chinook helicopter he was in was shot down in Afghanistan.

"I should be spending the Fourth of July with my kids," Stewart said. "This is a family that they are torturing. We're a family that needs to lay their fallen hero to rest."

The Wiccan faith is not among the 38 religions recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since her husband's death, Stewart has petitioned for recognition through the Memorial Programs Service Office and received the assistance of Nevada politicians. On Memorial Day, she organized the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Service at the Out of Town Park in Fernley, where about 300 people gathered.

Josephine Schuda, spokeswoman for the VA central office in D.C., said no action has been taken but department lawyers recently said the process the National Cemetery Administration used to established its directives regarding the approval process may not be "legally sufficient."

"They are reviewing the process," she said. "It's apparently contributed in further delay."

While in the capital, Stewart said she has an appointment scheduled with William Tuerk, undersecretary for Memorial Affairs, in her final attempt to get the pentacle recognized before taking legal action.

"I have sought legal counsel and I will be retaining it to pursue things to the next level," she said. "I will do what I have to do to put my husband to rest and stand up for the constitutional rights of all Americans."

With all that she has been through, Stewart said she is still grateful to be an American and live in the United States.

"I don't quite feel as free as I used to," she said.

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