For Gods and Country
Monday, February 19, 2007
The night wind pushes Don Larsen's green robe against his lanky frame. A circle of torches lights his face.
"The old gods are standing near!" calls a retired Army intelligence officer.
"To watch the turning of the year!" replies the wife of a soldier wounded in Iraq.
"What night is this?" calls a former fighter pilot.
"It is the night of Imbolc," responds Larsen, a former Army chaplain.
Of the 16 self-described witches who have gathered on this Texas plain to celebrate a late-winter pagan festival with dancing, chanting, chili and beer, all but two are current or former military personnel. Each has a story. None can compete with Larsen's.
A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. He sent home reports on the number of "decisions" -- soldiers committing their lives to Christ -- that he inspired in the base's Freedom Chapel.
But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity's exclusive claims about salvation and a "universalist streak" in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered a widening spiral of revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision of his own.
"I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God," Larsen says. "When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I'm done. . . . I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned."
Larsen's private crisis of faith might have remained just that, but for one other fateful choice. He decided the religion that best matched his universalist vision was Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship that has ancient pagan roots.
On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces, setting off an extraordinary chain of events. By year's end, his superiors not only denied his request but also withdrew him from Iraq and removed him from the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.