Denied: Wiccans and the military

Saturday, March 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:59 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

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, all but two are current or former military personnel.

Each has a story.

None can compete with Larsen’s.

The night wind pushes Don Larsen’s green robe against his lanky frame. n A circle of torches lights his face. n “The old gods are standing near!’’ calls a retired Army intelligence officer. n “To watch the turning of the year!’’ replies the wife of a soldier wounded in Iraq. n “What night is this?’’ calls a former fighter pilot. n “It is the night of Imbolc,’’ responds Larsen, a former Army chaplain. n Of the 16 self-described witches who have gathered on this Texas plain to celebrate a late-winter pagan festival, all but two are current or former military personnel. n Each has a story. n None can compete with Larsen’s.

A year ago, the former Army chaplain was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. 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 revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision.

“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 with ancient pagan roots.

On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. By year’s end, his superiors denied his request and withdrew him from Iraq and the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.

Adherents of Wicca, one of the nation’s fastest-growing religions, contend Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say Wicca, though recognized as a religion by federal courts and the IRS, is often falsely equated with devil worship.

“Institutionalized bigotry and discriminatory actions ... have crossed the line this time,” says David 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 himself, saying 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 McGhee, Larsen’s superior at Camp Anaconda, believes a “grave injustice” was done. McGhee, a Methodist, supervised 26 chaplains on the 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.”

Some spiritual seekers perpetually try new things, never finding one they like. Larsen has sampled many faiths, and liked them all.

Raised 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 from the Army in a 2005 overview of various faiths at the Chaplain’s Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, S.C.

The struggle between his Christianity and his willingness to see equal value in other faiths was a painful conflict that came to a head in 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 is unabashed about the faith’s central appeal.

“What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion,” Larsen says. “We don’t need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys.”

The American Religious Identification Survey shows the number of Wiccans in the United States rose from 8,000 to 134,000 between 1990 and 2001. The Pentagon reports 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 at least 4,000 followers are in uniform but say many hide their beliefs to avoid discrimination.

More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to serve in uniform, but the Pentagon repeatedly has denied efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list. Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger, spokesman for the Army’s Chief of Chaplains office, said the Sacred Well Congregation has met all requirements to become an endorser, except one: It has not presented a “viable candidate.”

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.

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 Chaplaincy to ask for the form, disclosing 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.”

In his reply, Larsen pleaded that the Chaplaincy not cancel his endorsement until he could complete the switch, but the Chaplaincy 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 pulled from Iraq.

Dolinger, the Army Chief of Chaplains spokesman, denied any discrimination: “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.”

Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force’s deputy chief of chaplains, says there are 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.

Larsen has since gone home to Melba, Idaho. Divorced since 2004, he is living with his children and serving as an artillery officer in the Idaho Army National Guard.

“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.”

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