By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Adherents of Wicca, one of the nation's fastest-growing religions, contend that Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say that Wicca, though recognized as a religion by federal courts and the Internal Revenue Service, is often falsely equated with devil worship.
"Institutionalized bigotry and discriminatory actions . . . have crossed the line this time," says David L. Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer who is an elder in the Sacred Well Congregation, the Texas-based Wiccan group that Larsen joined.
Larsen, 44, blames only himself. He said he was naive to think he could switch from Pentecostalism to Wicca in the same way that chaplains routinely change from one Christian denomination to another.
Chaplain Kevin L. McGhee, Larsen's superior at Camp Anaconda, believes a "grave injustice" was done. McGhee, a Methodist, supervised 26 chaplains on the giant base near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. He says Larsen was the best.
"I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave," McGhee says. "What happened to Chaplain Larsen -- to be honest, I think it's political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do."
What Larsen does is eclectic, to say the least. Some spiritual seekers perpetually try new things, never finding one they like. Larsen has sampled many faiths, and liked them all.
Raised as a Catholic, he became a born-again Christian at a Billy Graham crusade and began preaching at a Baptist church in Garrison, Mont., while still in high school. Later, he pastored two messianic congregations, which blend Jewish traditions with a belief in the divinity of Jesus.
In church, he spoke in tongues. In private, he read heavily in Buddhism.
He learned about Wicca, ironically, from the Army, in an overview of various faiths at the Chaplain's Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 2005.
Sporting a military high-top haircut and Converse high-top sneakers, Larsen appears closer to 24 than 44, and it is easy to see why he was popular with the troops. Earnest without appearing pious, he tears up when he describes a chaplain's duty to ensure the dignified handling of soldiers' remains.
In a single sentence, he links Native American sweat lodges, Saint Francis of Assisi and the Hindu leader Amma -- the common thread being his reverence for each. When he mentions the late Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he quickly adds the traditional honorific "of blessed memory."
He cites Dr. Seuss as readily as the Bible.
"If these guys," he says, referring to Wiccans, "had told me that 'We are the one path, the Star-bellied Sneetches, the true vessels of enlightenment for the lost world' -- I'm so tired of all that, I would not even have slowed down to take a second look."
He says he understands why strangers might think "a mortar round must have landed too close to this guy." He recalls, with a chuckle, that a friend once gave him a diagnosis of "multiple religions disorder."
But the struggle between his ardent Christianity and his willingness to see equal value in other faiths was no joke -- it was a painful, internal conflict that came to a head after he arrived in Iraq in early 2006.
"In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah and I thought, 'This has got to stop.' . . . The common core of all religions, we're saying the same stuff," he says. "I just decided that the rest of my life I will encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit, through the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages -- whatever path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."
Larsen now draws freely from all those traditions. He meditates daily, concentrating on the seven chakras that Hindus believe are the body's centers of energy.
At times, he tries to free his mind from his physical being, a New Age practice he calls "astral travel." With his 19-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, he reads the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Following the Wiccan calendar, he observes eight major holidays tied to the seasons and the right times to plant, harvest and tend a flock. Imbolc, for example, is when gestating ewes begin producing milk, signaling that winter is almost over.
Wearing the kind of fanciful robes you might see at a Renaissance fair, Larsen and other members of the Sacred Well Congregation greeted Imbolc this year in a circle of stones behind Oringderff's ranch house in Schertz, near San Antonio. Under a pair of gnarled mesquite trees was an altar; in the middle of the circle, a bonfire.
Eight women and eight men, mostly middle-aged couples, held hands. They danced in circles and figure eights, passed a large goblet of wine and pressed closer to the flames as the night grew chilly.
There was no nudity. No blood. No mention of the devil.
But there was a ceremonial dagger, a dish of salt, burning incense and a 35-minute service full of abstruse allusions to Celtic and Norse gods and goddesses. The part assigned to Larsen included such lines as: "Hail Sudri, and the Spirits and Creatures of Fire! Guardians of the Southern Gates of Gorias. We call upon you. . . . Salamanders of Fire, join us here!"
Some Wiccans believe these rites are truly ancient. Academic experts think they were invented in the 20th century, chiefly by Gerald Gardner, a British novelist and folklorist who claimed he was initiated into a secret coven in the Hampshire woods in 1939.
Larsen shares the scholars' skepticism. But he also contends that Wicca is "as close as you can get to the standing stones and sacred wells and river spirits" of pre-Christian Europe.
The Sacred Well Congregation, which has about 950 members across the country, prides itself on being an intellectual group. Ron Schaefer, a retired lieutenant colonel who flew F-4s and F-16s during a 26-year Air Force career, says Wicca "meshes perfectly with string theory." Dea Mikeworth, wife of an Army sergeant wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, says it reflects "archetypes in the collective unconscious."
But Larsen is unabashed about the faith's central appeal.
"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up," he says. "What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion.
"We don't need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys."
Something about Wicca clearly fills a niche. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, a widely respected tally, the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold -- from 8,000 to 134,000 -- between 1990 and 2001.
By the Pentagon's count, there are now 1,511 self-identified Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines. No figures are available for the much larger Army and Navy. Wiccan groups estimate they have at least 4,000 followers in uniform, but they say many active-duty Wiccans hide their beliefs to avoid ridicule and discrimination. Two incidents may bear them out.
When a Texas newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, reported in 1999 that a circle of Wiccans was meeting regularly at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, then-Gov. George W. Bush told ABC's "Good Morning America": "I don't think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."
Eight years later, the circle at Lackland is still going strong, and the military permits Wiccans to worship on U.S. bases around the world. But when Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005, the Department of Veterans' Affairs refused to allow a Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star inside a circle, to be inscribed on his memorial at the Fernley, Nev., veterans' cemetery. Ultimately, Nevada officials approved the pentacle anyway.
For Wiccans seeking public acceptance, obtaining a military chaplain is the next major goal. More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to serve in uniform. But efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list have repeatedly been denied by the Pentagon.
Lt. Col. Randall C. Dolinger, spokesman for the Army's Chief of Chaplains office, said the Sacred Well Congregation has met all the requirements to become an endorser, except one: It has not presented a "viable candidate." The group's previous nominee was turned away because his eyesight was not correctable to 20-20.
When Larsen came along last spring, Sacred Well's leaders thought they finally had someone the military could not possibly reject: a physically fit 6-foot-4 clergyman originally ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, who holds a master's degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Moreover, Larsen had spent 10 years as an officer in the National Guard, finished near the top of his class in chaplain's training and was already serving as a chaplain in Iraq.
But Oringderff said that his group, like Larsen, underestimated the institutional resistance. "Each time we advance to a scoring position, they change the rules," he said.
Once chaplains are accepted into the military, they are paid, trained and deployed by the government. But they remain subservient to their endorsers, who can cancel their endorsements at any time.
That is what happened to Larsen, according to unclassified military e-mail messages obtained by The Washington Post.
When the Sacred Well Congregation applied on July 31 to become Larsen's new endorser, the Army initially cited a minor bureaucratic obstacle: It could not find a copy of his previous endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, a Dallas-based association of Pentecostal churches.
The following day, a senior Army chaplain telephoned the Full Gospel Churches to ask for the form and, in the process, disclosed Larsen's plan to join Sacred Well.
Within hours, the Pentecostal group sent Larsen an urgent e-mail saying it had received a "strange call" from the Army Chief of Chaplains office. The caller "mentioned that a Donald M. Larsen . . . was requesting a change-over . . . to Wiccans," the e-mail said. "Please communicate with this office, as we do not believe it is you."
Larsen pleaded in his reply for the Full Gospel Churches not to cancel his endorsement until he could complete the switch. "Being here in Iraq has caused me to reflect on a great many things. However, as long as CFCG holds my endorsement, I teach and practice nothing contrary to your faith and practice," he wrote, adding: "It is all about the soldiers, please help me to continue to minister to them during this transition."
The Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches immediately severed its ties to Larsen. The Sacred Well Congregation could not renew his papers, because it was not yet an official endorser. Lacking an ecclesiastical endorsement, Larsen was ordered to cease functioning immediately as a chaplain, and the Pentagon quickly pulled him out of Iraq.
Dolinger, the Army Chief of Chaplains spokesman, denied that any discrimination was involved. "What you're really dealing with is more of a personal drama, what one person has been through and the choices he's made. Plus, the fact that the military does have Catch-22s," he said.
Jim Ammerman, a retired Army colonel who is president and founder of the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, acknowledges that there is a longstanding agreement among endorsers not to summarily pull the papers of a chaplain who wants to make a valid switch.
"But if it's not a valid thing, all bets are off," Ammerman says, adding that Wiccans "run around naked in the woods" and "draw blood with a dagger" in their ceremonies. "You can't do that in the military. It's against good order and discipline."
That description drew a laugh from Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains. "He's right, we can't have that in the military, but I don't think we've had any of that in the military," Richardson says.
Richardson says there are simply too few Wiccans in the military to justify a full-time chaplain.
According to Pentagon figures, however, some faiths with similarly small numbers in the ranks do have chaplains. Among the nearly 2,900 clergy on active duty are 41 Mormon chaplains for 17,513 Mormons in uniform, 22 rabbis for 4,038 Jews, 11 imams for 3,386 Muslims, six teachers for 636 Christian Scientists, and one Buddhist chaplain for 4,546 Buddhists.
Since returning from Iraq and visiting Texas, Larsen has gone home to Melba, Idaho. Divorced since 2004, he is living with his teenage children and serving as an artillery officer in the Idaho Army National Guard.
He said he knew from the start that converting to Wicca would raise questions but never expected the reaction to be so fierce.
"It's not my place as a little captain to challenge the decisions or policies or motives or actions of my superiors," he says. "I got to come home and resume my career in the Guard. I'm very thankful for that. Understand, it's all I've got left. . . . This was a big blunder. I barely survived it. I don't have another one in me."