CHAPLAINS, PTSD, and NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE TREATMENT


                                                          PART ONE
 Now here is an article which has all kinds of aspects to explore. It describes how the Veterans Administration has changed the classification of one PTSD treatment from substance abuse to that of Chaplain services. The US Chaplain Corps is required to minister to  a vast number of spiritual practices found among the military. Adding sweat lodge treatment using spiritism wording, prayer, and practice does not conflict with Chaplain duties as defined by the US government.
I sent it to a number of my colleagues. and received a wide range of responses. I asked some clerical brothers what they thought theologically about this article.
Two answers
   1
From a, usually, theologically minded pries
I have seen this before.Seen it in Walker, Texas Ranger. I never considered it of the God I worship.”

                                                          2
Another response came from a widely trained and very practically minded cleric.
” For many of these Vet guys, it is perhaps benign and quite helpful as a place of catharsis for them.  So, that’s OK, I guess.  Still, it’s old fashioned shamanism and spiritism.  Aboriginal religions are quite hard to critique.  The old missionaries of the 15th and 16th centuries tried sometimes to allow the aboriginal practices, as long as they were not expressly anti-Christian in content.
 
Very hard to critique.  
 
Another difficulty is that most “christians” have never had access to Christian forms of similar healing practices.  Meditation, rosaries, exorcism, Jesus prayer, etc etc.  Christianity in the protestant west became quite sterile and academic.  
True Christianity uses water, smoke, fire, palms, confession, icons, oil and many other symbolic means to open people to the spiritual realm with deliverance, salvation and healing.
(Italics added – 
Fr. Orthohippo)
My own thoughts on this article are much closer to the second response. To use a parallel example –  In AA, there is no attempt to promote any religion.  It’s sole purpose is to help the individual deal with problem drinking (substance abuse). AA’s foundation does require the acceptance that one’s life has become unmanageable, and that a power greater than oneself is required to restore one’s life. That power is never defined, and in practice among AA members, the higher power definition is highly varied. So far as AA is concerned, only sobriety matters.
It appears that the VA PTSD treatment is simply that, a therapy for those victims which have been unable to receive effective healing through other treatments.
Any other thoughts or comments?

May 28, 2012
Substance abuse. Violence. Even thoughts of suicide. These are some of the problems that many veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with.
Today it’s called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but it has affected veterans going back much farther. While doctors and researchers put enormous efforts into developing new treatments, one group of veterans in Salt Lake City is finding relief in a very old tradition: a Native American sweat lodge.
If you didn’t know to peer over the six-foot brick wall next to a parking lot at Salt Lake’s Veterans Affairs center, you’d never guess it was there.
On a Friday afternoon, Cal Bench, a Vietnam veteran, is here early, gathering firewood like he does every week for the ceremony that will start in a few hours.
“I went into the service at 18 and I went to Vietnam at 19,” Bench says. “And I had no idea how it would change or affect you mentally. The concept that I would carry that around forever was just hard. But I just never had any place to turn. I came here and I was given a blessing.”
‘Healing Right Down To The Core’
Bench started coming to these sweats in 2005 to cope with anxieties related to his combat experience. He found relief in the sweat, as well as a spiritual connection that has kept him coming back.
I just never had any place to turn. I came here and I was given a blessing.
– Cal Bench, Vietnam veteran
This VA is one of just a handful in the country that offers them. A sweat is a ceremony conducted by a Native American spiritual leader in a dome-shaped structure, or lodge. Sweats are common in Indian country.
“It’s healing right down to the core of that veteran,” says Arnold Thomas, a medicine man from the Shoshone Paiute tribe. He has training in social work and chaplaincy, and he has conducted the veteran sweats at the VA since 2004.
“When they’ve been overseas in combat, there’s a part of them that is left there,” Thomas says. “So when we have the ceremonies, there are certain prayer songs that I offer and make that effort to bring their spirit back home.”
Over the years, these ceremonies, originally intended for Native American vets, have drawn more and more non-natives — men and women who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. And while the sweats aren’t a good fit for every veteran who tries them, there’s a core group who have added these ceremonies to their medical and psychological treatments.
The VA has taken note of their benefits. In February, the sweats were moved from the substance abuse program to chaplain services, so they would be more widely available to veterans with PTSD.
“Looking at the astounding rates of suicides within the military over the last few years, what I’m reminded is … all people have the ability to reason, unless they’re grieving. So oftentimes I ask the veterans, ‘If you can’t reason, what is it you’re grieving?'” Thomas says. “And we sit down and I allow that space for them … to talk about those feelings, those memories. And I say, ‘Well, turn that thought, that emotion, intertwine it into a prayer, so you can let it go.'”
 
Setting Down A Heavy Weight
As one man brushes clean the 53 stones that have been selected for the night’s sweat, Steve Rich prepares the fire pit that sits next to the lodge. Rich is a Gulf War veteran with PTSD who is going through the VA’s substance abuse program.
“Since Iraq in 1991, I’ve carried around a couple of, I’d guess you’d say, spirits … one was a friend who was lost over there, and the other was an enemy soldier that I killed,” he says.
For 20 years, those memories haunted Rich, to the point that he started to abuse alcohol. Then a few months ago, his substance abuse counselor at the VA suggested attending a sweat — and bringing those spirits in with him.
“So I did, and [at the] beginning of the sweat, Arnold the Shaman sings a song that is to call the spirits to the lodge. And so throughout the ceremony that night, I just imagined them sitting there with me and speaking with me, and got a lot of closure, I guess you’d say, with that,” Rich recalls. “So at the end of the ceremony, Arnold will do a song that’s sending the spirits back to their homes, the spirit world. So when we did that song, I let go of them and released them. To say it best: I been walking around with this backpack with this weight in it, and doing that I was able to take off the backpack and just set it down and continue on my path.”
The Newcomer’s Story
The fire has been crackling for about two hours now and the stones are beginning to glow red. The sun is low on the horizon, and veterans from Vietnam to Afghanistan begin to arrive and mingle around the fire. Most are familiar faces, but Thomas also welcomes a newcomer.
Jared Hooker served in Iraq. And though he has been back for several years, he has struggled to come to terms with one particular memory: trying to save a friend whose tank was hit right in front of him.
“As we [were] pulling him out, his helmet fell off and a big chunk of his skull fell off into the floor,” Hooker recalls. “Blood everywhere. It was chaos. It was just … I mean, we killed a lot of people in Iraq but I was never really exposed to [a death] that close to someone that I knew.”
This happened at the end of Hooker’s tour. And within a month, he was back home in the U.S., with his family.
“And I felt like I seemed normal. But just having conversations with people, instantly [they] were like, ‘Dude, we love you and we miss you, man, but you’re different.’ … ‘What do you mean I’m different? How am I different?’ But I was in that mindset. I was still hypervigilant,” he says.
I’m hopeful that this will at least let me get in touch with who I really am, and not this monster I’ve become of being violent and wreaking havoc on other people because I’m hurting.
– Jared Hooker, Iraq veteran
Hooker says he would swerve his truck whenever he saw trash on the street for fear it concealed a bomb. He was uncomfortable in public places like restaurants. He started drinking and getting into fights.
“Growing up, I hadn’t been in a fight all through my high school career; then when I got back from Iraq, I was ready to throw down with anybody for any reason,” he says.
And the drinking got worse. “I hated my life. I drank every night so I could go to sleep and pass out.”
Then came trouble with the police and several arrests, including one that landed him in jail for 3 1/2 months. “And it really gave me enough time in jail to realize that if I don’t stop doing what I’m doing, eventually someone’s going to kill me. Or I’m going end up killing myself.”
Hooker says participating in the night’s sweat is important to him. “I’m willing to try anything. So I’m hopeful that this will at least let me get in touch with who I really am, and not this monster I’ve become of being violent and wreaking havoc on other people because I’m hurting.”
A Cleansing Ceremony
There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air as Thomas, the medicine man, gathers the rattles and drum he will use for the ceremony.
The veterans quietly go off to change. The men put on swim shorts, and the women wrap themselves in sheets that they wear like togas. The medicine man enters the lodge, and the veterans line up in front of the small opening.
Two helpers are busy bringing the glowing stones into the lodge from the firepit, scooping them out with a pitch fork, brushing off the embers, then carefully walking them into the center of the lodge.
Thomas leads the group in a prayer song that gives thanks to the trees for giving us oxygen to breathe, fruit for sustenance and wood for shelter. The intensity of the song builds with each repetition, until he stops singing and asks the assistants to seal the entrance with heavy fabric.
Inside the lodge it’s pitch black, and the group of about 20 sits in a tightly packed circle as the medicine man pours water onto the stones to create steam. For the next several hours he leads the group in a series of songs and prayers.
Three times during the ceremony, the entrance is uncovered to let in the cool night air. A faint light from the nearby parking lot slants through the billowing steam, lighting the group in silhouette for those few minutes.
During one of these breaks, the medicine man pulls out a clutch of eagle feathers, then asks the new veteran to stand and walk over to him. He says a blessing, then with the feathers makes scraping motions over Hooker’s entire body, from head to toe, cleansing him of war.
Taki Telonidis is a producer for the Western Folklife Center. Support for this story was provided by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.
Advertisements

About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
This entry was posted in AA, abuse, christian, panetheism, pastoral, spirituality, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to CHAPLAINS, PTSD, and NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE TREATMENT

  1. Joe Higgins says:

    I went through the VA PTSD program that involved the use of the sweat lodge and Native American techniques on healing soldiers with PTSD. I also hold a Masters degree of History specifically focusing my thesis in the history of PTSD, which includes chapters on the history itself, the stigmas of the disorder and the history of medical treatments. What I find in a lot of my research was that Native Americans have a lower rate of soldiers being inflicted with PTSD. They have a much higher healing rate versus other ethnic groups. Most of this actually stems not from the religious practice itself, but the practice that during these ceremonies, the inflicted soldier will speak about his trauma and what caused it amongst his peers in his tribe and family, which is one of the fastest ways to healing; this is called communalization of trauma; basically getting it out of your system amongst men who have been there before too. Within our own white Catholic or Protestant cultures, we don’t ask what happened to uncle Jim during the war, because it is not polite talk, nor do our churches offer a cleansing ceremony to assist soldiers. And as a person who if afflicted with PTSD, I can tell you this, if you speak about it and people know you have it, their first reaction is to pull their children closer to them when they are around you and quietly talk amongst their friends to watch out for that one, who knows what he may do if he snaps. So the PTSD suffer cannot get it out of his system amongst his peers and family. I started telling people I have it, just to explain some of my unusual behavior, such as memory loss and poor sleeping, just to be treated as a possible threat to society and pushed out of my job.

    Currently I’m working in a job that I turned around in 12 months that was going bankrupt, finished my Masters degree with top honors in half the normal time and considered one of the top people in my field of expertise. The business I run has for the first time in its forty year has brought in a profit, increased income by four time, customer base by over four times, business involvement is the highest in the businesses existence and I have broken every record the business held in its previous forty years. It was also for the first time nominated as business of the year. But I’m diagnosed as severe PTSD and if my employer knew about my condition I wouldn’t last out the month.

    The Point is, is that the Native Culture and practices that are used in the treatment of PTSD are not relying on the spiritual aspect of the ceremony as much as the portion of the ceremony where the afflicted has the opportunity to talk about what happened that caused his trauma and get it out amongst other men who also have suffered from this within his own family and tribe.

    I hope this makes sense and I have not rambled on too much with this explanation. I have given many lectures on the history of PTSD and I still get the same question from people, what can we do to fix this and my answer is always the same, if possible and you have a family member afflicted with PTSD, ask them what happened and just listen.

    • I much appreciate your comments. Thank you for sharing your experience. You reached the same understanding I came to later. I can not guess when or if the stigma assigned PTSD will abate. No says you have to share this with your work. In AA we prize anonymity and it serves us well.

  2. Sharri Llerena says:

    The Vietnam War is one part of our dark history, an infamous conflict during the early 70s. This is a military event between the Communist forces of North Vietnam supported by China and the Soviet Union, and the non-communist forces of South Vietnam which was supported by the United States. It was a fierce battle between the Vietcong forces and the U.S Troops which ended after the Fall of Saigon in April 30, 1975..

    Check out all of the newest content on our very own website
    <,http://www.healthmedicinelab.com/gnat-bites/

  3. Ruth Webster says:

    Like we don’t know that? Your numbers are off. A friend of mine was killed at Quang Tri on Dec. 21, 1967. The war was raging throughout most of the 60s.

    I am a veteran with PTSD. Non-combat, or so they say to those of us veterans who are rape-trauma survivors.

    I have been struggling with this issue for 34 years and, believe me, NOTHING helps.

    • Unfortunately, there is no single successful treatment. For you, so far, no treatment has helped. Your situation is not uncommon. Would that we could find a more widespread treatment. Personally, I don’t like the classification of rape survivors as non-combat. If it happened in a combat area, to me it is combat related. Why on earth were you there if not to support the combat effort. I don’t know how to better designate rape survivors who are traumatized in rear areas/non-combat zones. At least they seem to be taking that more seriously nowadays than your situation.
      I received my final Army discharge 12-31-60. No one was shooting at anyone except the DMZ in Korea. I pray you finally find some successful therapy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s