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Vets turn to sweat lodges to treat PTSD - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

Vets turn to sweat lodges to treat PTSD

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FORT CARSON -

A centuries-old tradition has become a new form of treatment for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the Native American sweat lodge on Fort Carson is leading the way for military installations around the country.

What once was a ritual held in secrecy is now a growing trend among both active duty and veteran warriors seeking its legendary cleansing powers. In a remote section of Turkey Creek, the air is filled with songs and smoke at the Lakota Sioux inipi, a traditional sweat lodge made of willow branches and donated quilts. It has been there since 1995. "They didn't have a clue as to what we were doing, and we weren't telling them at the time," says faith group leader Michael Hackwith.

Hackwith, a Marine veteran of the Gulf War, started the inipi with a couple friends who wanted to follow their own cultural religious practice. They got permission from the manager of the Turkey Creek ranch at the time. The participants pray, sing, play drums and sweat in the tent around dozens of hot stones, in complete darkness. It is a purity ritual designed to help sweat out negativity, a common problem for struggling soldiers.

Special Agent Kevin Cheek of the Air Force, now the military liaison for the sweat lodge, says, "I've deployed five times. I've been there and back, and all that negative baggage that you collect and the things that you see and stuff like that, this helps you cope. This helps you deal with all that."

Fort Carson formally recognized the sweat lodge as a religious practice in 2005, the first ever on a military base. Chaplains now recommend the ritual to those with PTSD. Guided by natives belting out tribal chants, everyone else is encouraged to pray in their own faith.

"You pray for your enemies and people that don't like you," explains Cheek. "And that's difficult, and as a veteran, you're praying for those people that actually shot at you. That helps you come to terms with a lot of the stuff."

For some, discovering the sweat lodge came at the lowest point in their lives. John Charles Freyta, a Desert Storm veteran, found out about the ceremony at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He says, "I got shot by the police four times, and I told the police I was suicidal and I wanted to die, and I threw a rock at them and they shot me."

Now rocks provide an escape. The stones heat over open flames for hours before being passed into the sweat lodge, where leaders pour sage and water over them to produce the steam. It can be a stifling environment at first, but those who practice say you soon break through your concerns about comfort and become grounded, something first-timer Oscar Lilley embraced quickly.

Lilley says, "I'm here with PTSD, but I've also had three knee surgeries. I've had a pulmonary embolism, and that's all derived from training and combat, and your body, your mind and your soul takes a toll."

Originally designated only for men of the tribe, leaders now welcome anyone to the lodge, especially soldiers. Women and men sit on opposite sides of the lodge, which seats up to 40 participants. Women wear loose cotton garb, while men wear shorts. After four rounds of sweating, the participants share a pipe filled with willow bark and eat ceremonial dishes that represent different aspects of life.

The leaders hope the tradition will continue for generations to come. Spiritual leader Wesley Black Elk says, "There's not a whole lot of Native Americans left in this country, and the sad truth is someday we'll be gone, and this is all they have to remember us by."

You can now find sweat lodges at a few other military bases and Veterans Affairs centers around the country. At Fort Carson, the Lakota Sioux also host a Sun Dance in July to celebrate their traditional new year.

The schedule for the sweat lodge changes throughout the year, but leaders host it at least twice a month. To learn more, contact Michael Hackwith at (719) 285-5240 or Kevin Cheek at (405) 313-8049.

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