Commander abandons soldier

For eleven months, the Bush administration has stalled on resolving a Nevada and national issue—whether a dead Nevada soldier’s faith is government business. The case is now so old that there is an entry for it in an online encyclopedia. The soldier’s name is carved into a memorial in Reno’s Powning Park.

Patrick Stewart of Fernley was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005. The Veteran’s Administration has refused to allow the emblem of his faith to be imprinted on his gravestone (paid for by the V.A.) at the state veterans’ cemetery in his home town, something that is done for every soldier and sailor. His faith—Wicca—is not “recognized” by the Veterans Administration. The VA didn’t even allow Wiccan clergy to be present for Sergeant Stewart’s burial.

The public is entitled to ask what business the federal government has using publicly funded resources to draw up lists of acceptable religions and policing who can attend military funerals, but those at least are problems that preceded George Bush. Their solution, however, is right in his hands, and he has not bothered to deal with them. He needs to become personally involved.

There is no realistic possibility that George Bush and his advisers don’t know of this case. It has made headlines around the world. There are 15,200 hits on Google for the case. It is a federal issue. Clearly, Bush has not dealt with it for reasons of his own.

This is one of the hazards of a president who does not believe in the secular government the founders designed into the U.S. Constitution. Too timid to alienate the core of his shrinking political base by seeming to intervene on behalf of a non-Christian faith, George Bush holds one of his soldiers hostage to his own political needs.

But even if George Bush does not accept the Constitution’s dictates, he could at least show compassion for the widow and family. How easy can it be for them to cope with the loss of a loved one while there is a lingering unresolved issue that keeps resurfacing and drawing them into the public eye?

For those who think this is not the business of a president, it is instructive to know that 55 years ago last week, President Truman read in the newspaper about an Iowa soldier killed in Korea who was denied burial in a Sioux City cemetery. The body of John Rice, killed in Korea, was literally being lowered into a grave when someone discovered he had Native American blood and halted the burial. In short order, Truman offered the widow burial in Arlington National Cemetery and had the family and coffin flown east, where burial ceremonies were held. John Rice now rests in lot 1033-2 of section 34 at Arlington.

George Bush, you’re no Harry Truman. You are commander in chief. Start acting like it.