Police at the Salt Lake City veterans hospital used a "guise" to gain information about a demonstration planned by veterans upset about changes to the hospital’s acclaimed sweat lodge, an email shows.
"VA police, under the guise of a potential participant, contacted one of the individuals listed as an organizer to gain more information," reads a Jan. 31 email from Steven Young, the director of George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Young’s email does not elaborate. He sent it to the medical center’s police chief, Teri Sommers, and other top administrators. According to the timestamp, it was sent a few hours after 10 or fewer veterans gathered on the medical center’s American Indian healing grounds to demonstrate. The veterans were upset at what they said was mistreatment by the VA against Arnold Thomas, who had led ceremonies in the healing grounds sweat lodge since 2006. Thomas resigned three days earlier, saying he was doing so under duress.
The demonstration was peaceful, though all parties acknowledge there was some back and forth with the medical center’s police force about whether the veterans could retrieve firewood and ceremonial items locked in a cage on the grounds.
Jill Atwood, a spokeswoman for the medical center, issued a statement saying: "We received word that massive amounts of people from all over were going to descend on this campus, and that they may try to dismantle the sweat lodge and take it with them. It was more than prudent and quite frankly our officers’ responsibility to use whatever means necessary to find out what was going on and when.
"We have patients and employees to look out for," the statement continued "and if there is going to be any kind of problem, our VA police need to be prepared for it. Had they identified themselves, they most likely would have not gotten the information. Furthermore, through this tactic, they were able to determine the true nature of the gathering and respond accordingly."
The lodge is made from canvas, erected around wooden poles and resembles a tepee.
VA police did not write a report about the phone call or their concerns, according to Atwood and the results of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Tribune. That request yielded Young’s email and others concerning the sweat lodge.
Cory Navarro, an Iraq war veteran who began a three-day fast in the sweat lodge the day Young’s email was sent, said he was not surprised to learn of the tactic. He said VA police probably called him. He remembers a "shady phone call" earlier that day from someone who identified himself as a resident in the medical center’s substance abuse program but who did not give his name.
Navarro said he told the caller to come to the healing grounds and the demonstration would be peaceful.
"I can understand their side of things when worrying about it not being a peaceful protest," Navarro said Thursday, "but at the same time, there was no hostility or anything put out there that we were going to do anything stupid.
"It just reaffirms how they are with their police force and everything else up there. If you’re going to treat that as a threat to have a ceremony, then you might as well treat everyone as a threat that comes up there."
Cal Bench, a 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Woods Cross, was elected to be the spokesman for the demonstrators. On Thursday, he wondered why VA administrators didn’t just ask him what was planned. Bench said he has been receiving services at the hospital and volunteering there for years, and people know him.
Of the guise, Bench said, "I think that’s pretty underhanded, if they did it, because I would have told them" what was happening.
Emails show the dispute that led to Thomas’ resignation was ignited by concerns over who would buy firewood for the weekly sweat lodge ceremonies and whether ceremonies could be held during Salt Lake City’s bad air days.
Bruce Clapham, a chaplain at the Salt Lake City VA, expressed concern in a Dec. 5 email that wood burning at the sweat lodge had doubled since the weather turned cold and the medical center was about to run out of money in a donated fund used to purchase more. Clapham reviewed VA policies. He worried the policies forbid purchasing the firewood with general funds because the sweat lodge ceremonies are religious.
Administrators at the VA also worried the medical center would be cited by Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality if wood was burned during one of the Salt Lake Valley’s winter inversions. Atwood on Thursday said the VA determined the state does not give an exemption for religious ceremonies, and so the medical center is not going to allow sweat lodge ceremonies on bad air days.
Clapham also wrote a Dec. 10 email pointing out the sweat lodge ceremonies serve many veterans who are outpatients and who don’t claim an American Indian affiliation.
"Traditionally, the VA has held the view that outpatient veterans should receive most of their spiritual and religious care within the community," Clapham wrote.
Clapham proposed to reduce the sweat lodge ceremonies to 18 a year, according to a Jan. 27 email, but hold American Indian talking circles on weeks with no sweats.
In a meeting the next day, Clapham raised his concerns and proposals to Thomas, who quit over the pleas of staff not to do so.
Emails show the medical center police and other staff made at least periodic checks on the demonstrators. In an email dated Feb. 1, the second day of the demonstration, and sent to Young and the police chief, among others, Clapham suggested a course of action.
"If they leave the lodge area, I would suggest that you consider moving the wood to an area where they have no access or soaking the wood just before nightfall in order for it to be frozen in place," Clapham wrote.
After the veterans’ demonstration, it was agreed Thomas could continue leading the sweat lodge ceremonies until a new contract is awarded. Atwood said the contract has been placed for bid.
Thomas on Thursday said he has submitted two bids. The VA rejected the first and asked him to resubmit at a lower cost. Thomas said he did so and is awaiting a response.
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