SAN ANTONIO -- Atreiyuh Cammen is more than 4,000 miles away from his home in Alaska. He's a basic military trainee at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. His faith, however, is just a heartbeat away.
Cammen is a witch.
There's nothing wrong with Wicca, he said.
The 19-year-old became a witch five years ago after being a religious wanderer. He said fantasy books and the Harry Potter phenomenon fueled his interest in the Wiccan faith.
I thought I'd be able to fly around and things like, he said of his pre-witch days.
But Cammen went deeper. He found a faith fulfilling to him.
People need to understand that Wicca is not about cackling and casting curses upon people, Cammen said. And, certainly, not wishing ill.
Cammen is among a curious multiplication of Wiccans at Lackland. Hundreds of basic military trainees have chosen to study witchcraft at the base.
When we come over here on a Sunday, often times, there are 300 to 400 (trainees), Tony Gatlin said.
Gatlin is the coven's high priest. His wife is the high priestess. He's the grandson of a southern baptist preacher who became dissatisfied with his denomination and converted to Wicca. He's been a witch for more than 12 years.
I knew I had a spiritual side that needed to be nurtured, he said. Just by chance, I met a witch, and it was transformational for me from then on.
He spent 25 years actively serving in the military as an enlisted U.S. Marine and Air Force officer. Gatlin also worked at the Pentagon. He was even there on Sept. 11. Gatlin now guides military trainees who are interested in witchcraft at Lackland.
This is the largest weekly Wiccan service in the entire world, he said. I mean, nowhere else do you have 400 people sitting in a room listening to a Wiccan service.
They gather inside of a room inside of Arnold Hall Community Center. On the day, the group prepared to celebrate Halloween with a Samhain ritual. Pentecostal worshipers had just vacated the same space.
Samhain means end of the summer. It's signals the beginning of a witch's new year. They honor the dead and the rebirth of their God. Considered their most sacred holiday, some describe it as the time when the veil between the natural world and the spirit world is the thinnest.
However, they are quick to assert that Wiccans are not devil worshipers. Satan, they say, is a creation of another religion.
Wicca is a pagan religion where men and women are called witches. Warlocks are considered breakers of the oath. Calling a male witch by that name is viewed as an insult. So, if not devil-adoring beings with broomsticks, black cats, and pointed hats who have an evil agenda, what are witches?
All Wiccans are witches but not all witches are Wiccans, Gatlin explained. Witchcraft is the means by which we practice our faith of Wicca.
Witches, he said, believe in a dual divine spirit that's both male and female. Some practitioners have names like Artemis, Isis and Cerridwen, for the goddess. For the god, names like Aten, Cernunnous and Lugh are recognized.
Wicca is an earth-based faith where the followers are attuned to nature and its elements, especially fire, water, air and earth. They manipulate energy through magic spells to achieve a desired result.
Gatlin said they have a rede: An it harm none, do as thy will. It reportedly forbids witches from causing harm on others through their magic. Moreover, spells are supposed to be limited to achieving good because of their law of three-fold return, which states whatever magic cast out returns to the spell caster three-fold.
The Christian faith may have prayer. The Catholics may pray the Rosary, he said. We have things we call spells that are a kin to prayer.
The Department of Defense, by decree of the U.S. Constitution, provides a meeting space for those who some might consider military witches.
Our job is to make sure that, to the extent that we reasonably can, we accommodate the religious views and free exercise rights these military members have, said JBSA-Lackland Chaplain Col. Michael Heuer.
Every trainee who attends has not committed to the religion. In fact, Gatlin said only a small number are considered practitioners. Yet, the attendance remains strong.
Trainee Jesse McCrady is also a witch who attends the services. The 19-year-old from North Texas has been a witch since he was 10.
It's just me doing what I feel is right, McCrady said.
He isn't sure this is the path he'll follow for his entire life. For now, he remains as faithful to Wicca and its deity as he says Christians are to God.
How are you certain the lord exists? he asked. By faith.
Atreiyuh Cammen, who is about to graduate from basic training, plans to stick to his choice, as well, despite the baggage it carries.
This isn't MacBeth, he said.