I'm in a traditional Lakota sweat lodge, a 15-foot-wide dome of willow branches covered in thick moving blankets and canvas.
Inside the tiny lodge, 20 of us are shoulder to sweaty shoulder in burning pain. The ceremony leader sings a traditional song, pouring cup after cup of water onto the still-glowing rocks, increasing the heat until voices break the darkness in anguish. Mine would join them if I could, but the heat is like a hundred pounds of sand, pressing me down into submission.
Now I know what it feels like to touch hell.
The ceremony is called inipi, more commonly known as sweat lodge. It is one of seven sacred rites of the Lakota Sioux, and has also been used traditionally as a purification ceremony among many Native American nations.
While the idea of sweating as a form of cleansing has been around since ancient times (India's Ayurveda manual has a steam bath treatment called a nadi sweda), the inipi focuses more on the ceremonial and communal aspects. Inside a typical lodge, dozens of heated rocks are brought in from a nearby fire pit until the temperature climbs to nearly 200 degrees.
Sometimes the Lakota use it for purification, prior to other ceremonies like the hanblecheyapi (vision quest) and the wiwanyag wachipi (Sun Dance). On the quiet plains of the Fort Carson Military Reservation, it's being used as medicine to heal another kind of sickness: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returning soldiers.
For soldiers who have returned from combat, reacclimating to civilian life can be one of the biggest challenges. Unfortunately, veterans must face this extreme readjustment at the same time that their minds are finally able to decompress from long deployments that have required constant, necessary vigilance just to stay alive and situations that have forged painful memories.
Estimates of the percentage of soldiers who return from war with diagnosed PTSD range from 11 to 27 percent, depending on the number of combat deployments. Many other cases remain undiagnosed, in some cases because veterans are concerned that seeking help could hinder their military careers.
On a secluded piece of land at the Fort Carson military reservation, soldiers have the opportunity to participate in a traditional Native American sweat lodge to cleanse not only their skin, but their spirit. This sweat lodge is led by Michael Hackwith-Takesthegun, a 45-year-old Marine veteran whose elders still live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He's not a conventional holy man, nor would he think of himself as the type of dour and dry minister whose religious temperance separates him from those he wishes to help. He's a guide with an important responsibility to honor an effective, important ritual.
"We're getting so many veterans coming back from the war," he said. "They're searching and seeking and looking for something, and maybe this is helping.
"I know when I was 20 years old the last thing I was doing was hanging out in the church."
This is Takesthegun's lodge, and while he's mindful of the rules and traditions, he's inclusive and never forgets that this is about healing, even if it wasn't his plan at the start. After returning from serving in Iraq, he had no plans to become an inipi leader until two former soldiers approached him at a pow-wow and asked him if he would conduct the ceremony for them.
"It just started," he said, "because I knew some sacred songs."
So Takesthegun sought the permission from his elders. He was already in the process of committing four years to the Sun Dance, in gratitude for a decade in the Marines without ever being seriously injured in combat, and seeing his commitment to others and his own heritage, the elders granted his request.
His accidental initiation to leading an inipi occurred at Sun Dance, when his grandfather, Wallace Black Elk, came into the lodge at the last minute, adjusting the seating arrangement -- and putting Takesthegun in the leadership position of water pourer. He tried to beg off the sudden responsibility but was overruled.
With the blessing of the elders obtained from Pine Ridge, the soldiers who had asked Takesthegun to lead a ceremony for them made arrangements for the inipi to be held in a secluded area on the sprawling military reservation, and Takesthegun signed a formal agreement with commanding generals from Fort Carson and the 4th Infantry Division to officially recognize the area for the Native American religious ritual. It was now official.
The sweat lodge leader bears the responsibility for the ceremony, but he has taught us how to respect that tradition. We mind the silence while the first seven stones are brought in: the north, the west, the east, the south, Father Sky, Mother Earth, and the seventh stone -- the wakan, sacredness.
Most of the men and women at today's lodge are Native American: Lakota. Navajo. Delaware. And military veterans as well, some of whom are older and a hard kind of lean that makes it difficult to tell if they're 30 or 60. Even the younger ones carry the haunt of their past.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Seals is a regular member of the Fort Carson sweat lodge and said that soldiers appreciate both the camaraderie of having the ceremony with other soldiers and having a place where shared purpose dissolves the divisions of rank. To him, the sweat lodge reflects the best quality of the Army: that no matter what happens, somebody is always there with you. You have their back and they have your back.
"The sweat lodge fits soldiers well because Native American culture is a warrior culture. Most young American men aren't exposed to that culture until they go to war, and then they learn how to be a soldier all at once," Seals said. "But there's more to the warrior culture than that. The warriors in Native American culture aren't just the first ones in battle, they're the first ones to stand up and make sacrifices. The warrior leads when it's time to go without, when it's time to suffer. Fighting is the last resort as a warrior. Sacrifice is the first."
Cope Mitchell, an Army chaplain at Fort Carson for 20 years and the sponsor of the Native American group at the military reservation, said it's his duty to guarantee soldiers the free exercise of their faith -- including Native American spirituality.
"I've really seen that when you go through combat there's a lot of evil that sticks to you," Mitchell said. "The Native Americans have always understood that after combat, you've got to have a time of cleansing. The sweat lodge provides that. There has to be a releasing of that in some way."
Every splash of water thrown onto the rocks produces a sharp heat and another wave of pain. The inipi leader has told us that this is not an endurance test, but that's only partly true. The lodge is not a competition about who can sit the tallest while another gasps for air an inch above the dirt floor. But it does push your endurance. The heat melts into the skin until even your mouth seems to sweat. There is no hiding in the lodge. Everybody suffers equally and willingly.
A veteran himself, Takesthegun understands the mindset of the men and women in his lodge in a way that few others can. "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.
"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 knows about that pollution. As a gunner for convoys out of Tikrit, he operated across most of Iraq, from Kuwait, to the Syrian border, all the way up to Iraq's border with Turkey. After three combat tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
After he returned home, it was hard to let go of the constant tension he had experienced in combat.
"You're constantly shot at and under attack," Fuentes said. "When I came home I was angry. My wife said that I was disturbed, but I didn't realize how much until I woke up choking her in my sleep."
Fuentes said he went to see a psychiatrist after that incident, but the psychiatrist didn't address the stress of combat.
"He told me that I should probably stop listening to my music and watching movies," Fuentes said.
He didn't find peace until he was introduced to sweat lodge by a fellow soldier of Crow ancestry who was working in the California prison system conducting the ceremony for prisoners.
"The first time I went through a sweat, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Fuentes said. "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."
Between rounds, we stay inside the lodge, but the flap to the outside is lifted and the inipi leader talks about the ceremony and the songs, about the spirit nation and the directions in a flowing, instructional monologue. He talks about the power of our prayers in the lodge and reminds us to be thankful, and to be strong, not only for ourselves but for our families and the others who need us, who rely upon our strength.
Then he nods to the Fire Man, who starts bringing in more stones -- fresh ones still glowing dull orange from the fire 10 feet away. Each one is brought into the center of the lodge and set gently beside the others, widening the circle of incandescent stones that are now close enough to touch. The women sprinkle crushed herbs onto them, and the herbs instantly disintegrate into bright sparks and a puff of sweet smoke.
Thinking back on the days before he found the sweat lodge, Fuentes worries that he nearly lost his family because of his condition and is thankful that he found a way to get past it.
"My wife could tell the difference immediately. Just by changing me, it's changed my whole family dynamic," he said. "My mind is clear, I can concentrate and I come back to my family happy. It feels like your heart is lighter."
John P. Wilson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Cleveland State University, isn't surprised. In his research, he has seen sweat lodges help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.
"Soldiers have extreme hyperarousal, they have to be hypervigilant in times of war," said Wilson, co-editor of "Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam," which examines how PTSD can changes the lives of soldiers. "It's a hard thing for PTSD sufferers; they can't switch it off. We've seen the difference with [ex-soldiers] who access their traditional healing methods. They have fewer issues with depression, alcoholism, fewer intimacy conflicts.
"The lodge helps them stay calm and experience themselves in a completely new way."
Wilson is quick to note that the sweat lodge is most effective in the full cultural context of Native American spirituality, an interconnectedness with not only living relatives but the ancient line of relatives, and the spiritual element within animals and plants, stones and earth, sky and wind, the four directions, the sun and moon and stars.
Concepts of family, sacredness and connectedness permeate the simple framework of the ritual and provide deep roots that drink from centuries of shared history. To understand the experience best, Wilson participated in numerous sweat lodges around the United States and noted that experiencing it helped him understand it -- even though the experience was tremendously difficult the first time.
"I got invited to go to a warrior's sweat and it was the hottest thing I ever experienced. There's sensory deprivation, so you concentrate on the words being spoken," Wilson said. "The more I paid attention to the words, the less pain I felt. 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."
Much of the ceremony is conducted in the Lakota language, although prayers arrive and pass in the darkness in other languages. Some are barely audible, evaporating like curls of smoke. In the stifling darkness, every word takes on a sacred reverence. Each word is elevated through our shared misery.
Wilson believes that psychobiology is a factor.
"I think there's a shift to a higher brain function. There are two hemispheres, one is more logical while the other is more holistic, and the heat induces a shift of hemispheric dominance. The lodge induces tremendous relaxation," he said. "I've done dozens of these and I've never seen anybody who finished it come out of the lodge tense. There is a deconditioning involved."
The physical suffering reminds us of the emotional anguish that is impossible to hide here. The suffering is sometimes acute, burning through the structures we've placed around painful memories. In the darkness, we hear each other's weaknesses, but this is a safe place.
Between rounds, the flap to the outside opens and we grunt in temporary relief, as he reminds us to take courage. Sit tall, don't lie down. Lead by example. He wants us to stay strong during this difficult experience, and his voice echoes through our individual experiences and silent struggles. Take courage. This is hard but you'll get past it. You are not alone; we are all with you. Despite the discomfort of the moment, the reminder will stay with us long after the lodge has discharged us and the final ember of the fire has gone cold.
The flap finally opens to end the ceremony as the water pourer ends the sweat with a triumphant yell of "mitakuye oyasin!" ("all my relations"), a compact pair of words that encompasses and acknowledges mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, every generation that struggled and overcame, surviving and sustaining a family, a tribe, a nation. It extends through you, and your brothers and sisters and cousins, and past you, to your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
We crawl out of the lodge on our hands and knees into the cooling afternoon and finally understand the meaning of the word inipi, which translates roughly as "to live." Emerging into the cool air afterward feels magical and purifying and sacred.
Leaving the lodge is a welcome emergence. The feeling of relaxation is total. Nobody says anything, we just let the last breezes of the afternoon glide past us, through us like an ethereal tide.
For just a moment we are still, and completely at peace.