WHITE CITY — Three days a month, a small patch of earth at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics becomes sacred ground.
A American Indian ceremony, thousands of years old, is being used to help veterans find a path in their recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The traditional sweat lodge is offered to inpatients three times a month — two ceremonies for men and one for women — and the ritual, historically used by many native cultures before a great undertaking, is proving to be effective therapy, SORCC officials said.
Ricky J. Martin, liaison for American Indian programs at SORCC, said there is a lot of good being done for the body and mind inside the facility's brick walls, but the chapel and sweat lodge take care of the spirit. And that means the whole person is being taken care of, which is essential to addiction recovery, he said.
Spirituality is an important but elusive element, and Martin believes it is a critical area of need for many veterans.
"Military service, especially during wartime, causes losses of the spirit," said Martin, "and I often see vets who come here lacking trust. Learning how to trust again is a major impact for the spirit."
Larry Ramey is a Navy veteran recovering from addiction and the adjustment issues that stem from it. He credits the sweat lodge for much of his success in his two years of sobriety.
As an inpatient in White City, Ramey, who is part Blackfoot, has attended about 25 sweat-lodge ceremonies. Although he has sweated many times before, it was never for the right reasons; spirituality never settled in, he said.
Ramey said the White City lodges have changed his life.
"In recovery, an integral part of it is a higher power, you have to have it," said Ramey. "This gave me a higher power. It gave me hope in something stronger than myself to stay sober."
Ramey said the sweat lodges have given him something he could not find in conventional religion.
"With this way, you experience the religion, it's right there in front of you," he said, "and that's what's so powerful."
The sweat lodge has been offered at SORCC since 2003. A brochure describes it as a ceremony in which people gather inside a small shelter while red-hot stones, or "grandfathers," are carried to its center, heating the shelter. The ceremony is in four stages, or "doors," with each door having a different purpose in the spiritual cycle of the lodge. The first door is the "spirit calling," the second is for "prayer," the third is the "doctoring" stage, and the fourth is the "spirit returning." Each door contributes equally in the self-discovery and spiritual awakening of the participants.
The lodge is conducted by a group of American Indian elders, which is what Martin believes makes the VA lodge special.
"The elders bring forth a place of self-worth, a place where they (the vets) can make rational decisions," said Martin. "They give these patients something to take with them — respect and honor."
Richard Ochoa drives over the mountain pass from Klamath County to conduct the VA lodges, which are his "way of life." Martin said he has never missed a lodge. Ochoa has been the water pourer at the VA for several years, and, although he is not a veteran himself, he enjoys helping the veterans "walk this road."
"We do this ceremony for spiritual healing, but we are not medicine people or healers," said the half Klamath, half Yacqui Indian. "All we ask is four days clean and sober."
While guiding people through the lodge, he pours water over the stones at different times throughout the ceremony, which is all about getting back to the womb of Mother Earth.
"The water I pour is the blood of Mother Earth," said Ochoa. "The steam cleanses the body and mind. It has different significance for each individual."
Elder Jim Prevatt, an Army veteran of Shasta descent, believes in the power of the prayers said in the lodge — both for himself and others.
"You think your life is bad, and then you see others that have things 10 times worse," said Prevatt. "That's who you pray for, because everything needs to be prayed for. That's why it's a good path to walk."
Prevatt added there are "many different prayers and many different hopes" in each lodge.
Personal empowerment is a key benefit of the lodge, Martin said. He believes the lodge is a continuum that represents the circle of American Indian life and instills trust, honor, respect — "lots of things missing in current society."
The SORCC sweat lodge is open to inpatients, and, if space is available, to registered outpatients. More lodges will be held in the weeks leading up to the Rogue River Veterans' Powwow, which is being hosted by the SORCC June 5-6.
F.B. Drake is a freelance writer living in the Rogue Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.