SHERIDAN — From the sacred circle on the outskirts of the Sheridan VA campus, the historic brick buildings that were once known as Fort Mackenzie are obscured by trees covered in blooms of hoar frost.
A light snow materializes and mingles with floating specks of ash.
The ash comes from a large fire banked against cinder blocks and covered in a layer of igneous rocks. Five-gallon buckets of water sit nearby, some with bundles of grass soaking inside. Others line the edge of a small domed structure covered in blankets: the sweat lodge.
Most of the dozen veterans gathered here have never been in a sweat lodge, and know little to nothing about the rites involved.
Soon they will know many things. They will know to “never cross between the fire and the lodge.” They will know that, when entering, exiting or moving through the lodge, “turn to the right. The left is for those who have passed on.”
The man who will teach them is Thomas Cummings, a Marine Corps veteran and member of the Crow tribe.
Addressing their questions and expectations about the sweat lodge experience, Cummings tells them a sweat is like the military. It might say one thing on paper, but it is different in the field.
The sweat lodge was constructed by Arapaho elders in the summer of 2019 as a part of the VA’s Whole Health program. The program was introduced regionally three years ago when Salt Lake City was chosen as one of 18 flagship sites, according to Sheridan VA Healthcare System’s Whole Health Manager Esther Reece.
Whole Health represents a new approach to providing health care to veterans that encompasses more than traditional Western medicine practices, Reece said.
“Really when we talk about Whole Health at the VA, we’re looking at providing a holistic approach to care that puts the patient at the center of their healthcare and makes them the captain of their healthcare team,” she said.
Whole Health addresses every part of a veteran’s life, including rest, nutrition, physical activity, surroundings, relationships and spirituality, Reece said.
Every veteran treated by the Sheridan VA Healthcare System completes a “personal health inventory” in an Introduction to Whole Health class that is also open to family members and caregivers. If a veteran is unable to attend the class in person, they can attend via teleconference and still receive the same care.
When veterans fill out the PHI, the category titled “spirit and soul” is often left blank.
According to Reece, many veterans “have a spiritual guidepost that they were taught in childhood or adolescence. Then they grew up, became adults, went into the military. Sometimes the things that they have been through in their military career experience make them feel like maybe they don’t have a place in that spiritual element of their life.
“When it comes to spirit and soul,” Reece said, “we all have our own unique thoughts and beliefs, but that one piece can really influence overall health.”
The approach has led to a cultural transformation within the entire VA healthcare system, Reece said.
Last year, Sheridan VA was chosen as one of 36 collaborative learning sites to further develop the foundations of a fully implemented Whole Health program.
“That provides us with more collaboration with Salt Lake City and also with our national Whole Health partners to begin to implement and bring forth even more offerings here locally and throughout the state,” Reece said.
In addition to the sweat lodge, the Sheridan VA intends to offer other wellbeing programs in the future, such as yoga, healthy cooking classes and tai chi.
“We’re just in the infancy of rolling this out in our VA system and there is much more to come,” Reece said.
The Sheridan VA healthcare system serves veterans from Wyoming and the rest of the eight-state Rocky Mountain region for various programs.
The sweat lodge at the Sheridan VA campus is not only connected to the whole health program, but also the spiritual counseling traditionally provided through chaplain services.
Inherent in chaplaincy is the goal to provide care for everyone, said Chaplain Rev. Derek Schultz. This often means encouraging patients to look deeper into their specific backgrounds, and to reach out to people who are a part of that faith or tradition.
According to Schultz, there are 62 different federally recognized Native American tribes in the Rocky Mountain region. Of all the ethnic groups in the U.S., Native Americans have the highest percentage of military service per capita.
Schultz said the sweat lodge, like all the Sheridan VA’s spiritual health services, will be available to all veterans. Upon intake at the VA, veterans have an opportunity to participate in what is known as an introduction to spirituality.
The VA plans to offer one sweat per month, run by a rotating group of tribal elders, mostly coordinated by the Helena Indian Alliance. Two sweats were held before late-summer fire restrictions put the program on hold. The sweats resumed in December with a lodge led by Crow elder and Marine Cummings.
At the sweat lodge, everyone gathers near the fire.
Cummings explains that he plans to forgo many of the traditional strictures of the sweat lodge. People are free to come and go as they please. Once the drumming and singing starts, he invites participants to pray, silently or aloud, in any language they see fit, to whatever higher power they believe in.
“I’m not any better than you,” he says. “I’m not here as a medicine man, I’m here as a veteran.”
Since completing his active-duty service, Cummings says, he has experienced many of the same struggles as other veterans, such as alcoholism and homelessness. Becoming involved with the sweat lodge has helped him to heal.
He says it is important that veterans know they don’t have to stay in the lodge through all four rounds of the sweat. People who have experienced tear gas or grenades might be triggered when the water hits the rocks and bursts into steam.
Cummings lauds the camaraderie of veterans, regardless of differences such as race.
“We all bleed red,” he says.
After changing into comfortable clothing in a nearby tepee, participants gather near the fire. The towels draped over their shoulders doing little to abate the shivering.
Rocks are lifted from the fire and carried into the lodge, where bearers deposit them in the pit.
Cummings enters first. One by one, the veterans follow. He instructs them to crawl behind him and take their place to his left, forming a circle all the way around the pit of hot rocks.
“We crawl because we’re humble,” Cummings says. “The lodge is our mother’s womb. When you come out, you’re reborn.”
“We call it ‘the common man’s lodge,’” said John Maronick Jr., a Navy veteran and Human Resource Specialist at the VA. “It’s just kind of a general purpose lodge, which I think is really good for these veterans to experience, most of them for the first time.”
Maronick was adopted by a Dakota family as a child. His mother raised him to participate in sweat lodges.
“We were taught to carry the song, the music. Learning that, and appreciating the ceremonies and the way the Dakota people teach was really just what I needed when I got out of the service. It was kind of the patch that filled the void when I got home,” Maronick said.
When the VA decided to build a sweat lodge, Moronick saw an opportunity to share his knowledge.
“I’m keeping it as traditional as possible. These ways are ancient,” Maronick said. “The sweat lodge is one of the very first ceremonies that ever came to the Lakota people. We just try to make sure that we don’t deviate that much. Granted it’s 2019, almost 2020, but the ceremony commands respect.”
Not all aspects of the VA sweat lodge adhere to tradition. The ceremonies are open to all genders, for example, while most traditional sweat lodges are gender segregated.
“When we’re working and trying to establish people that can come and provide the ceremonies for us, it’s crucial that they allow it to be co-ed,” Maronick said. “We have a lot of sisters that served, and by no means are we going to forget about them.”
The door is closed and everyone shifts in the darkness, settling into their space in the tightly packed interior.
A bucket and ladle are passed around for wetting hair. The atmosphere is casual, yet ceremonial at the outset. Jokes and laughter mix with prayers in the Crow language.
The round commences, steam rising and rolling intensely. Maronick offers prayer, sings and drums.
Some people kneel on hands and knees, towels draped over their heads. Others sit upright, letting the steam wash over them until Maronick throws the door open.
Light streams in and everyone looks around, slightly bewildered as the steam clears out. Before the lodge loses too much heat, the door is closed again.
Soon, the darkness is filled with drumming, singing, murmured prayers, moans and sobs.
When the veterans emerge from the lodge at the end of the ceremony, the frost has melted from the trees and the snow has ceased. Patches of blue are visible in the sky.
Billy McGall came to Sheridan after a suicide attempt landed him in a VA hospital in Florida. There was a waiting list to join the program.
You don’t have to enter the VA sweat lodge with any specific beliefs, he said. “You know, you can go in there with your own beliefs and it’s still pretty cool and it works well.”
McGall said the experience has helped reconnect him to his Christian roots and inspire him to want to help others.
“You’re in there and you’re in your own little space,” he said. “Everybody else is dealing with what they’re dealing with. You’re dealing with what you’re dealing with. It was a communion, but it was also between you and your God. It was comfortable and it was really cool. It was really spiritual.”
While in the sweat, McGall found himself praying by speaking in tongues, something he hadn’t done since childhood.
“I felt comfortable enough to pray and be in there and pray aloud in my spiritual language while they were singing. I thought that was really cool that I could do that and nobody batted an eye,” he said.
After the sweat, McGall said he felt energized and renewed. He was moved to call the woman who raised him to share the experience with her.
The VA’s Reece has noted the same kind of enthusiasm for the whole health approach from other veterans.
“I think one of the elements that really kind of stood out to me in the very first class when we began offering introduction to whole health was just how hungry veterans are for this type of care,” she said. “They want to be engaged in their care. They want to know what resources are available to them. And they want to be proactive about their health.”
The whole health approach has allowed Reece to view healthcare in a new way. A former diabetes specialist, she spent most of her career working with acutely ill patients. Under those conditions, she did not have as much opportunity to look at health holistically.
“It was quite the beautiful picture opening up where I could see our veterans in a whole new light and really appreciate where they’re at,” she said. “And then meeting them where they are, and really beginning to work with them and help them paint a picture of what they want their lives to look like and what they need to do to achieve that.”
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