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Volume 72, Issue 63, Thursdsay, November 16, 2006

Opinion

Veterans of all religions need recognition

Denise Hewitt 
Opinion Columnist

At the heart of our nation's capital lies a constant reminder of the cost of liberty, Arlington National Cemetery. 

There, in quiet rows of white headstones, lie those who fought for our country, many of them having paid the ultimate price. 

In the light of the eternal flame which burns at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, all of those who are buried there are equal. Despite divisions in America's military history concerning racial, ethnic or religious lines, all who lie there are equal. We have cemeteries such as this one all over the United States and all over the world from Normandy to Hawaii.

National military cemeteries began construction during the Civil War as a way to both honor and protect the Union dead. 

On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized the purchase of land for "soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country." 

By the end of the Civil War, nearly 300,000 soldiers were buraied in the new national cemeteries. Almost half could not be identified.

Burial in one of the national cemeteries has become a sacred right and honor for those who have served. 

More than 2.5 million men and women who served this country lie in neat rows, headstones aligned in perfect formations. 

Although the headstones are uniform, they also uniquely reflect the life of the person who lies there. Service medals, from the Bronze Star to the Medal of Honor, are indicated, as is the service branch. 

At the top of each headstone is also engraved the appropriate symbol for the soldier's religion.

These headstones include 38 authorized symbols, including 15 different types of crosses. 

Atheists have an atomic symbol; other symbols include a Star of David, a Buddhist wheel, two symbols for Islam and one for Hindus. 

Of these symbols, though, the five-pointed star inside a circle symbolizing Wiccan beliefs is not included. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which takes care of our national cemeteries, refuses to recognize it as a religion. 

Scientologists can have their copyrighted symbol exhibited, but Sgt. Patrick Stewart, awarded both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, may not have his pentacle. His widow has filed a lawsuit against the federal government after repeatedly being refused by the department.

In 2005, 1,800 active-duty service members had "Wiccan" listed on their dog tags. With 38 symbols available, the Department of Veterans Affairs is obviously not concerned about restricting the number of possible inscriptions. 

Perhaps the department should remind itself that Americans wish to honor all those who have served and who have made sacrifices for our safety. Our military cemeteries are places of inclusiveness, not exclusion. President McKinley ensured this inclusiveness by urging Congress to assume care for our Confederate dead.

In the fields of Arlington lie the dead from scattered graveyards of Confederate soldiers who died far from home. Near them lie those they fought against. Black and white soldiers who were once segregated lie united. When they served, they did not ask nor care if the man or woman beside them was Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist or Wiccan, and neither should the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hewitt, a history senior, 
can be reached at denise.uh@gmail.com.

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