Heavy Heat


On the Fort Carson military reservation in the Colorado plains, traumatized soldiers are sweating out the weight of painful war memories and the immense pressure of resuming ordinary lives that often drive veterans to depression, alcoholism and substance abuse, reported AolNews.com.

An estimated 11 to 27 percent of soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, stated Veterans Today. Many returning soldiers profess finding solace in one of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota Natives, a purification ceremony where dozens of heated rocks fresh from the fire pit are crowded into the center of an inipi -- a circle of saplings covered in hides or blankets -- until the temperature climbs to nearly 200 degrees. Water is poured on the stones, and steam fills the room.

Marine veteran Michael Hackwith-Takesthegun founded the Fort Carson sweat lodge and leads the inipi ritual. "As soldiers we are asked to do and see things we would rather forget. We struggle with our souls. We get depressed, and we drink or drug ourselves to escape these images, these sounds and smells," he explained to AolNews.com. "The lodge cleanses our souls, eases our fears, and helps us to heal and to forget. War causes pollution of heart, mind, body and soul. Lodge cleanses that pollution."

Higinio Fuentes, who fought three combat tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, remembers that suffocating pollution. "When I came home I was angry," Fuentes said. "My wife said that I was disturbed, but I didn't realize how much until I woke up choking her in my sleep."

In his first failed attempt at recovery, he met with a psychiatrist, who suggested he stop listening to his music and watching movies, he said.

Relief swept over him in a heat wave, when one day, a fellow soldier of Crow heritage introduced him to sweat lodges as a way of restoring inner peace. "The first time I went through a sweat, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Fuentes told AolNews.com. "When you get there, it's like there's dead mud on you, weighing you down. The minute the water hits the rocks, you feel it lifting. By the end, it's gone. I come out and feel like I'm floating."

John P. Wilson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Cleveland State University and co-editor of "Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam," which examines the damaging effects of PTSD, knows that sense of floating.

While enduring the sweat lodge's brutally high temperatures, he experienced "sensory deprivation," he said. "By the time it was over, I had an altered state of consciousness. I felt light. I went from an internal state of anxiety to one of joyousness."

Beyond his personal attestation, his research shows sweat lodges help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. He also emphasizes the significance of embracing the full cultural context and Native American spirituality during the sweat.

"We've seen the difference with [ex-soldiers] who access their traditional healing methods. They have fewer issues with depression, alcoholism, fewer intimacy conflicts," Wilson said. "The lodge helps them stay calm and experience themselves in a completely new way."