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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. 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."

He didn't always feel that way.

After his attempt, he was racked with feelings of guilt and shame. He wondered why he was still alive.

He was sent to Utah for surgeries and to attend a school for the blind. There, he learned he could still function in society and make something of his life. But first he needed to move on emotionally.

"I came to understand I needed to let go of the anger and guilt and shame that stems from any suicide. I wanted to release and let go of some of that anguish, so I started looking around different churches, different faiths," said Thomas, a Shoshone-Paiute. He said he wasn't a very spiritual or religious person before the attempt.

"I eventually ended up back in my people's ceremonies, and it was a coming home," he said. "I could feel everything right down to the core click."

He attended more American Indian ceremonies. He learned from his elders. Thomas eventually began leading sweat-lodge ceremonies at the Utah State Prison in Draper. And he began his own consulting company, White Buffalo Knife, a job for which he travels the country talking about suicide prevention and other topics.

Then, one day, he was asked to take over leading the ceremony at the Veterans Affairs hospital. Thomas said he declined the offer twice before he accepted, knowing that if he committed to it, he'd commit to it fully.

He ultimately took the job to spend more time with his wife and two daughters closer to home in Salt Lake City. But he also took it to ensure that the ceremony would be conducted correctly by a qualified individual.

It's a ceremony of purification, in which stones are heated with fire and placed in a tent. Participants sit in the tent, and water is periodically poured over the stones to create an enveloping steam. They pray for others in the ceremony, which can last several hours.

"It's not a self-help group," Thomas said. "It's a part of a spiritual faith tradition that is originally from this land, and it's thousands of years old."

That doesn't mean the ceremony is limited to just American Indian veterans. It's something from which people of many religious and ethnic backgrounds at the VA seem to benefit, Thomas said.

He said it can be calming and help veterans find peace of mind.

"I hear from veterans all the time that [the] ceremony has a lot of meaning and impact in their lives," said the Rev. Father Joseph Westfall, who supervises Thomas and works as chief of chaplain services at the VA. "It speaks to them in a very basic way."

Westfall said Thomas isn't an official chaplain at the VA; he essentially works on a contract basis. But Thomas has completed a chaplain training program and said he has gained certification to be one as well.

Friends and family say working at the VA seems to be a good fit for Thomas, who can relate, in some ways, to the veterans' internal struggles.

Robertjohn Knapp, an American Indian elder who has helped to guide him over the years, said Thomas, like some of the veterans, has "gone to the edge." Knapp himself is a veteran of the Korean War.

"For me, all those things that we go through in life are not there to punish us," Knapp said, "but they're there to teach us, and Arnold's been through his own horrendous experience."

Knapp said Thomas had to decide to override his own feelings and instead care for himself and others and live a spiritually oriented life. That, he said, is what Thomas is trying to teach the veterans as well.

"For me … the mental, the emotional, the physical and the spiritual healing I've gone through over the years has helped me reach a place of balance," Thomas said, "so I could share that with the veterans."

Like some of the veterans, he's had to let go of grief and blame.

He's had to forgive himself.

He's had to learn how to carry on, and he's tried to find meaning in his journey.

When Thomas tried to end his life decades ago, he didn't know at the time he was actually perpetuating a long, sad family tradition. He learned only afterward that his paternal grandfather had died by suicide.

Arnold's grandfather was a traditional Paiute man, he said, and an Army veteran.

"That's one of the reasons he's chosen to work for the VA," said Ruth Miller-Thomas, his wife of 17 years, "to help families heal."

Twitter: @lschencker —

Suicide prevention

To find out about suicide prevention, visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK.

To learn about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Utah Chapter, visit http://afsputahchapter.com.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.

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