RENO — The widow of a Nevada soldier killed in Afghanistan a year ago won state approval Wednesday to place a Wiccan religious symbol on his memorial plaque, something the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had refused.
"I'm just in shock," Roberta Stewart said from her home in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno. "I'm honored and ecstatic. I've been waiting a year for this."
Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, 34, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 25 when the Nevada Army National Guard helicopter he was in was shot down. He was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize and so prohibits on veterans' headstones in national cemeteries.
The new development came Wednesday when state veterans officials said they had received a legal opinion from the Nevada attorney general's office that concluded federal officials have no authority over state cemeteries.
As a result, they intend to have a contractor make a plaque with the Wiccan pentacle -- a circle around a five-pointed star -- to be added to the Veterans' Memorial Wall in Fernley.
"The VA still has not determined yet if a Wiccan symbol can go on the headstone," said Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. "But we have determined we control the state cemetery and that we therefore have the ability to recognize him for his service to his country," he said.
Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.
The Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration allows only approved emblems of religious beliefs on government headstones. Over the years, it has approved more than 30, including symbols for the Tenrikyo Church, United Moravian Church and Sikhs. There also is an emblem for atheists -- but none for Wiccans.
Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) were among those who had pleaded Stewart's case to the VA.
Stewart's widow said she was hopeful the plaque would be in place by the anniversary of her husband's death.
"I'm proud that my state of Nevada is overriding the national VA to do this," she said. "My hope is the national Veterans Administration will follow so that all soldiers of all faiths can be honored equally."
Brig. Gen. Cindy Kirkland, adjutant general of Nevada's National Guard, welcomed the news. "I am pleased we are able to recognize Sgt. Stewart's sacrifice and the ideals for which he stood."
Stewart enlisted in the Army in 1989 and served in Desert Storm and Korea. After completing active duty, he enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard in 2005 and went to Afghanistan.