Failed Suicide Leads Native Man Down Shaman’s Path to Healing War-Wounded Veterans at Salt Lake City VA

In a dirt lot around the back side of Salt Lake City’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Arnold Thomas, a native American shaman and VA chaplain, conducts traditional ‘sweat’ ceremonies to help veterans at the hospital heal from psychological and spiritual wounds suffered in war. Thomas said he has a powerful connection to the vets who come to him for “spiritual cleansing.” His grandfather, a traditional Paiute man and Army veteran, died from suicide. (Salt Lake Tribune)

Spiritual Leader’s Journey Takes Him Full Circle

American Indian practitioner helps others after his own suicide attempt.

by Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug 04 2012

Arnold Thomas often encourages troubled military veterans to give thanks for what they have.

The spiritual leader tells them to start with themselves. Be thankful for everything from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, Thomas urges them. Be thankful for the DNA imprinted on every cell of your being, and be thankful for the mother and father from whom it came.

It’s not always an easy task for those with whom Thomas works as a Native American Traditional Practitioner at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Some struggle with physical ailments, others with substance abuse and others with mental illness. But if anyone knows that gratitude is possible, even after a rocky journey, it’s Thomas.

“People say, ‘Well, would you turn back the clock?’ ” Thomas said of his past. “Well, yes, I would, but the fact of the matter is it’s done, and I’m here and I’ve worked my rear end off to get to where I am mentally and emotionally and physically, and I’m thankful.”

Though Thomas has been working with the VA for eight years, holding sweat-lodge ceremonies for veterans among other things, he’s never actually been in the military.

Thomas, 42, fought his own kind of war: a battle against himself.

As a teenager growing up on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, he wanted to end his life. Depressed over the suicide of his father, Thomas turned to drugs and alcohol.

It’s not a self-help group. It’s a part of a spiritual faith tradition that is originally from this land, and it’s thousands of years old — Arnold Thomas, chaplain, Salt Lake City VA

When he was 18, he stuck a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger.

He survived, but with that flick of his finger, he changed the landscape of his face and his life forever.

Thomas couldn’t speak for years. His face is scarred and disfigured from where the bullet tore through it. And Thomas, a 6-foot-2-inch-tall former high-school athletic star, lost his eyesight in the attempt.

Decades have passed since Thomas tried to take his life, and he’s still not through with the surgeries. But he’s not bitter about it.

“I’m not sad I’m blind. I’m not sad my face is disfigured or I sound a little different,” said Thomas, whose words are still sometimes a bit unclear. “I learned a really hard lesson. I’m thankful that I’m alive.”

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