Marty Martinez drank too much and carried a grudge when he retired from the Army almost 20 years ago. He wasn’t about to open up to a therapist about it.
“I’ve been angry my whole life, and my PTSD just made it worse,” said Martinez, 62.
But, slowly, something changed. Martinez has been reconnecting with the Native American ceremonies he set aside when he was a young man. Earlier this year, the former Special Forces soldier from Olympia felt a burden lift.
In the dark and the heat of a sweat lodge, surrounded by other veterans seeking to heal their own wounds of war, Martinez “was able to let go of 60 years’ worth of anger.”
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It’s a feeling that he wants to share as a leader on the elders council of the 2-year-old Department of Veterans Affairs sweat lodge on the grounds of the American Lake VA campus in Lakewood.
The group invites veterans of all faiths and backgrounds — men, women and mixed groups — to sweats that are held nearly every week in a blanket- and cloth-enclosed wood hut. Younger Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans will occasionally pop in.
Martinez estimates that more than 1,000 veterans and their caregivers have participated in ceremonies at the lodge since it opened in 2012 in the woods surrounding the VA hospital.
They find a meditative experience that they can share with other veterans looking to improve relationships, cope with nightmares, cut back on prescription medications or purge themselves of destructive habits.
“What we try to do is replace their medicine with medicine that will ground them, that will bring them back home,” Martinez said.
The council has members with a variety of tribal backgrounds. They chose to base the ceremony they provide on a healing sweat lodge used by the Lakota tribe of the high plains.
“Our tradition is that who needs help will be helped, whoever he is,” said Warren Gohl, 73, of Tacoma, a Vietnam veteran and elder on the council.
The council’s work revived a practice that fell by the wayside at the American Lake VA in the 1990s, when a previous sweat lodge folded.
Many VA hospitals around the country provide sweat lodges, with some operating as substance abuse programs and some as religious programs under VA chaplains. VA facilities in Boise, Spokane and Walla Walla have sweat lodges.
Since 2004, the VA Puget Sound and a group of Native Americans have been working to bring back the ceremonies to American Lake. It took eight years for the VA to dedicate a slice of land on the lake and to find a group of Native American elders who would take on the rituals.
The long effort was worth the wait, Gohl said.
“You don’t build a lodge,” Gohl said. “The spirit brings the lodge.”
VA officials view the ceremonies as a form of alternative healing that can complement the work of its medical providers in Seattle and Lakewood, said Cathy Davidson, coordinator for VA Puget Sound’s minority affairs program.
“Many people think of it is a religious ceremony,” Davidson said. “It certainly has a spiritual quality. This one is a purification ceremony. If there are things that are heavy on your mind, it can help clear the things that are weighing on you.”
At a ceremony last week, Preston Stankee of Tacoma couldn’t tell where the rain ended and the sweat began on his soaked T-shirt. He wielded a hatchet, breaking logs into kindling to stoke a fire that would warm stones for the day’s sweat lodge.
Stankee, a former Marine, has no Native American ancestry, but he’s been attending three sweat ceremonies a month this year.
“When I found the sweat lodge, it was like I found my community,” he said.
He said he struggled adjusting to civilian life after he left the active-duty military in 1989. The sweat lodge is one of the avenues he’s been pursuing to move forward with his life.
“Veterans, they’re going to heal by doing something. They’re not going to heal by sitting in a room taking pills,” said Stankee, 47.
While he chopped away at the kindling, a group of Vietnam veterans welcomed newcomers. Each guest passed through singed cedar and sage leaves in a spiritual cleansing ritual.
Bruce Haskell, 60, of Shelton walked into the grounds smiling. The first-time sweat lodge participant has been getting help at the VA for post-traumatic stress, a condition he developed after responding to a helicopter accident while serving with the National Guard. To this day, the sounds of helicopters disturb him.
He called elder Gohl a few times before deciding to try the sweat lodge.
“I could tell you were struggling,” Gohl told him.
The hours passed, and veterans shared stories about their military experiences. Stankee’s fire took hold, turning a mound of stones red hot.
Several elders are Vietnam veterans whose views about the war changed after they left the military.
“The war got very personal,” said Ron Otstott of Yelm, who served for more than two years in Vietnam.
“I got angry at the destruction I was seeing,” said Gohl, who served two tours in Vietnam, the last in Saigon in the year before the U.S. left the country.
Neither man practiced Native American ceremonies during their military careers. They found the traditions later, when they searched for a different way to interpret their war experiences.
For Otstott, the key moment came when a friend invited him to a tribal ceremony at the Nisqually reservation. Tribal members thanked veterans for their service. It was the first time he felt gratitude for the years he spent in Vietnam.
Afterward, he embraced the ceremonies.
“Coming back to this way saved my life,” said Otstott, who remembered being in a medicated stupor after he left the Army in 1989.
With the stones red hot from Stankee’s fire, Otstott gathered the day’s participants to prepare them for the lodge. Each man stood barefoot and shirtless in the cool fall air as Otstott gave his final instructions.
Line up by age, with the oldest participants entering the lodge first.
Lay your head down low to the ground if the temperature grows too hot.
Be honest when you speak, and each participant will join you in prayer.
Remember, “It’s like Vegas. What’s said in the lodge stays in the lodge,” he said.
Over three hours, Otstott took the group through four rituals: One to welcome spirits, one for the participants to pray, one to raise the lodge’s temperature and symbolically purify oneself, and one more to close out the ceremony.
“It was invigorating,” said Haskell, the first-time participant. “I connected with the camaraderie of the warriors, with their pain.”
The men broke for snacks rich in carbohydrates and sugar. They talked about friends they worried about, wishing they could bring troubled loved ones back to the lodge for some spiritual medicine.
“It’s one of the things I live for, a chance to help one of these guys who fought in Iraq, in Afghanistan,” Otstott said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to hang out with people who’ve been there and done that.”