Don Larsen found a new faith in the turmoil of Iraq. Supporters say his military setback demonstrates lingering misconceptions about the arcane belief system.

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SCHERTZ, Texas — 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.

A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. But 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.

False impressions?

On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. By year's end, his superiors not only denied his request but withdrew him from Iraq and the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.

Adherents of Wicca contend that Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say Wicca, though recognized as a religion by courts and the IRS, is often falsely equated with devil worship.

Chaplain Kevin 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.

“What happened to Chaplain Larsen — to be honest, I think it's political," McGhee says. "A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do."

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 a 2005 overview of various faiths at the Chaplain's Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, S.C.

The struggle between his ardent Christianity and his willingness to see equal value in other faiths 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 draws freely from many traditions. He meditates daily, concentrating on the seven chakras that Hindus believe are the body's centers of energy. With his two teenage children, he reads Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. He observes eight major Wiccan holidays tied to the seasons.

Night ceremony

This year, Larsen and others celebrated one such holiday, Imbolc, in a circle of stones with an altar and a bonfire behind the Texas ranch house of David Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer who is an elder in the Sacred Well Congregation, the Texas-based Wiccan group Larsen joined.

Eight women and eight men, in fanciful robes, held hands and danced, passing a goblet of wine. There was no nudity. No blood. No mention of the devil. 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.

Some Wiccans believe these rites are truly ancient. Academic experts think they were invented in the 20th century, chiefly by British novelist Gerald Gardner, who claimed he was initiated into a secret coven in 1939.

Larsen shares the scholars' skepticism but says Wicca is "as close as you can get to the standing stones and sacred wells and river spirits" of pre-Christian Europe.

What draws Wiccans

The Sacred Well Congregation, which has about 950 members nationwide, prides itself on being an intellectual group. 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.

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

The widely respected American Religious Identification Survey shows the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold, 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.

More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to serve in uniform, but the Pentagon has denied efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list.

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.

When the Sacred Well Congregation applied 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.

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. Larsen was ordered to cease functioning immediately as a chaplain and pulled from Iraq.

Lt. Col. Randall 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 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.

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.