Zombie soldier escapes!

A mysterious empty military casket was found in the Arizona desert near Tucson on Saturday, fueling local fears that a zombie soldier may have escaped.

Two men found the silver coffin in a pile of trash near Interstate 10; the men were reportedly "playing paintball" in the desert.

"When deputies arrived, they opened the casket expecting to find a body but did not," KVOA TV reported. "Instead they found hair and fluid."

Pima County Sheriff's deputies identified the empty casket as belonging to the U.S. military, which they found "particularly suspicious."

"Put out a nationwide broadcast to see if anyone anywhere in the country is missing a military style casket and the body it contained," Lt. Bob Kimmins demanded.

The odd tale took an even stranger twist on Monday, when the same TV news program claimed the casket had been sent to a garbage dump by a mortuary -- because the missing soldier's family dug up his coffin, removed the corpse and burned it.

No explanation or evidence was offered for this bizzarre claim, and neither the soldier nor the alleged family have been identified.

"The Pima County Sheriff got a call from the mortuary who said they thought the casket was one they had taken to a local landfill," KVOA reported Monday. "Employees at the landfill also say they had a casket stolen."

It was unclear whether the second "stolen casket" had anything to do with the original empty casket found in the desert, or exactly what kind of landfill keeps inventory of the garbage dumped and buried there.

Just as mysteriously, the "landfill" and its employees have not been identified.

Pagan ceremonies

The weird news comes as families of pagan troops killed in the U.S. occupation of Iraq demand the right to bury their loved ones under a magical pagan symbol.

The Veteran's Administration has never authorized the use of Wicca's pentacle on grave markers, even though it allows the use of symbols from 38 other beliefs, including obscure or possibly fictional religions such as Ixumo Taishakyo, Soks Gakkai, Aaronic Order, Seicho-no-ie and Presbyterians.

The online group Military Pagans says Wiccans have been trying to get their symbol recognized for a decade, but VA bureaucrats have yet to simply approve the pentacle.

Some find it ironic that American troops serve a Pentagon -- the heart of every Wiccan pentacle -- but aren't allowed to have a pentacle mark their final resting place.

Zombies don't die

The unpopularity of the deadly Iraq occupation has forced the White House to come up with endless schemes to keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Stopgap" policies keep soldiers stuck in Iraq long after they were supposed to get out of the service. Miserable recruitment levels have led the Pentagon to start taking the true dregs of society: imbeciles, criminals, the retarded and the elderly.

The Defense Department can't make its new robot soldiers fast enough, and the government's obvious desperation has fueled rumors that "undead soldiers" are being tested and even deployed.

The deep unease about zombie soldiers was expressed by "Uncle Sam," the groundbreaking Isaac Hayes film about a 1991 Gulf War soldier who was killed by "friendly fire" and returned to America as a zombie dressed as Uncle Sam to wreak vengeance on hippies and other people who weren't patriotic.

The 1974 classic "Deathdream" told a similarly poignant tale, in which a Vietnam soldier comes home after being killed in battle. Angry about the war, the undead soldier is also "cursed with the need to kill and inject the blood of others in himself to keep from rotting away."

But most Americans know about the government's zombie troops from the popular "Universal Soldier" movies of the 1990s.

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