A sweat lodge on Fort Carson is leading the way for military installations around the United States.
The centuries-old Native American tradition has become a new form of treatment for soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
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.
The sweat lodge 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.
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.”