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(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Photo composite of the inside of the sweat lodge erected at the VA Hospital in Salt Lake, medicine man, Arnold Thomas who is completely blind feels around for debris in preperation for a ceremonial sweat. The buffalo style sweat lodge, built to represent the rib cage of a buffalo, is meant to transcend participants to birth and the womb and being born out of darkness.
Utah veterans want their sweat lodge leader back

They reached a deal to resume weekly ceremonies at Salt Lake VA facility, but the deal didn’t guarantee his return.

First Published Mar 02 2014 10:12 am • Last Updated May 03 2014 10:47 pm

On the third day of Cory Navarro’s fast, another veteran walked into the sweat lodge and told him the director was there to see him.

Navarro had stopped eating soon after the leader of the American Indian sweat lodge program at the Salt Lake City veterans hospital resigned. Now Navarro, a 32-year-old former Army Ranger wearing only pants, scooted over to the sweat lodge door and sat on the ground. Outside the door, in a chair, sat Steven Young, the director of the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs health care system, wearing a winter coat over his shirt and tie.

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Young had been speaking to American Indian elders throughout the weekend, a VA spokeswoman said. All sides reached an agreement in a dispute over the use of sweat lodges at the facility that Navarro, Young and other veterans signed.

The agreement gives the American Indian veterans weekly sweat lodge ceremonies and everything else they wanted, except for one thing — the permanent return of the man who has officiated the sweat lodge ceremonies.

That man, Arnold Thomas, resigned Jan. 27, four days before Navarro began his fast inside the sweat lodge. In an interview earlier this month, Thomas said the head chaplain at the Salt Lake City VA wanted to reduce the number of annual sweats to 18 a year from about 45.

The VA has erected sweat lodges at their hospitals across the country, partly to provide religious services to American Indians. The sweat lodge also has been credited with helping veterans treat physical ailments and substance abuse.

Science has not yet supported those claims. Regardless, the "sweats," as veterans call them, have as much to do with spirituality as medicine.

Thomas saw the reduction as an attempt to end the sweat lodge program. He said there had been previous attempts, including an episode in the summer when the head chaplain refused to buy more wood.

"I finally reached a point where I had enough," Thomas said.

But VA officials insist they never wanted to diminish the sweat lodge program.

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"On the contrary, it’s going to enhance it," said Jill Atwood, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City VA. "We’re adding some talking circles as well," referring to another American Indian ceremony.

Atwood said there were discussions only about how many of the sweat lodge ceremonies needed to be held every year, and when Thomas and veterans said they needed to be held weekly, administrators agreed.

Atwood said any discussions about changes were part of an annual evaluation every program receives to discuss how to improve. But Thomas, Atwood said, got mad and quit midway through the discussion with the Salt Lake City VA’s head chaplain, Bruce Clapham. Atwood said people at the VA even asked Thomas not to quit.

Any concerns the VA had about the ceremonies appear to center on Thomas, who was conducting the sweat lodge ceremonies under a contract with the VA that expired Dec. 31.

Veterans supporting Thomas released an email sent by W.J. "Buck" Richardson, minority veterans program coordinator for the VA regional office that covers Utah. In the email, sent to Thomas and administrators at the Salt Lake City VA, Richardson suggests the VA is being "dictated to by" Thomas, who is "making rules up as he goes to fit his needs as he needs them."

Richardson went on to write, "The way it is now I get the sense that he feels he has the VA over a barrel."

Richardson declined to answer questions about Thomas, but told The Salt Lake Tribune no one who officiates American Indian ceremonies receives a salary. Some receive honorariums that reimburse their expenses, but many of the leaders refuse that. Atwood declined to answer some questions, saying the conflict contained an employment dispute.

Thomas, too, declined to answer some questions, saying he retained legal counsel and the VA was investigating his complaints.

Navarro, a Chiricahua Apache who was wounded when a bomb exploded underneath his vehicle in 2005 in Iraq, attended his first sweat with Thomas in 2010. He said the peace and prayers he received during the sweats helped him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

"I swear to God, I felt a part of myself return," Navarro said.

Veterans from multiple tribes and those who are not American Indians participate in the sweats. Veterans also are allowed to bring spouses and family.

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