A six-year quest by multiple soldiers to add Heathenism to the Army's list of faith group codes appeared to wrap up in January, with word from a chaplain that the most recent request, filed in the spring of 2014, had been was approved, and the code set to enter the Army's system in a week or two.
Before the move became official, the Army sidelined all such requests, pending the findings of a Defense Department working group investigating how to create a single set of faith group codes across the services, Army spokesman Wayne Hall said via email.
Such a system ultimately could be good news for soldiers who practice faiths already recognized by the other services — Heathenism, for instance, is on the Air Force list — but for now, there is only a longer wait.
"It almost feels demeaning when you have to pick something like 'Other' or 'NoRelPref' because the Army doesn't have something within administrative databases for your record," Sgt. Daniel Head, one of the soldiers pursuing the change, said via email from Germany, where he's stationed.
"At best, a service member might have 'Pagan' or 'Wiccan' as an option, but this still is not the same and does not benefit the Soldier the same services."
Sgt. Daniel Head's request, filed last spring, to add Heathenism to the Army's list of faith group codes remains pending.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Head
War, hammers and lawyers
An umbrella term covering multiple faith groups, "Heathenism" generally applies to any faith surrounding ancient deities from Norse, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon or similar cultures. At least one such sub-group, Asatru, also resides on the Air Force faith-code list.
Head made the 2014 request after meeting Josh Heath, a former soldier who had unsuccessfully attempted to add Heathenism to the Army's codes on multiple occasions.
Heath's first research into the issue came during a deployment to Iraq, he said, mostly "so that if the worst-case scenario happens, I'll be taken care of in the way that I'd want to be."
He put the request together in 2009, after securing the support of the Troth, a Heathen organization to which he and his wife belonged. The request cleared the system the next year, he said, but instead of "Heathen" or "Asatru," the Army had approved "The Troth."
"That's kind of like saying we've just approved your [specific] Baptist church as opposed to 'Christian' or 'Baptist' as your religious preference," Heath said, but emails to multiple chaplains couldn't convince them to change the name without resubmitting the entire application.
The Heaths left the Troth in 2010, but Josh Heath tried again for approval in 2011, this time with a different parent group and a letter signed by about three dozen active-duty soldiers who supported the new code, he said.
Heath left active service later that year, then left Reserve duty in 2013. He never received word on the request and didn't re-engage on the matter until a news item put faith and service back on his radar: Mjölnir, better known as Thor's hammer, was approved for military headstones.
Former Spc. Josh Heath left active duty in 2011 after unsuccessful attempts at adding Heathenism to the Army's faith-code system.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Josh Heath
"That was when my brain went crazy again," he said. "Thor's hammer, one of the symbols of our faith, is approved for soldiers that die, [but] soldiers that are on active duty don't have the right to have their religion respected while they're living.
"We started again."
Told by an Army chaplain that he would need active-duty applicants, he started the process over, eventually linking up with Head and other soldiers. During that time, the Army approved a faith code for Humanism, a decision reached shortly after the acting Army undersecretary for personnel and readiness received a four-page letter authored by three representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, two of whom were lawyers.
"Personally, I don't like the optics of that," said Heath, although he didn't rule out a similar path for the Heathenism request.
The way forward
The Army has more than 190 faith group codes, Hall said, with two requests for new ones received in the last 12 months (he did not identify them beyond a "monotheistic" and a "non-monotheistic" request). Both requests "are pending the report of the DoD working group," he said.
A soldier's voluntary identification using these codes does not guarantee religious support, nor will it lead to immediate consideration to changes in the Army's chaplain force. However, it does provide some guidance.
"With a religious preference of 'Other' or 'NoRelPref,' the chaplain presiding over a funeral will default to a subtle Christian service," Head argued, "not as an insult or slight against the Soldier, but because the chaplain has nothing else to work with."
And while the Heathen faith does not offer a specific text for such occasions, recognition of the group will help avoid such problems. Heath said.
"We don't want the situation to occur where prayers of another faith are said over a body," he said. "That might not necessarily be taken well."
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.