My Week Among the Freezing, Confused, Hopeful Veterans at Standing Rock
When US veterans traveled to Standing Rock to join the pipeline protests, they were hoping to protect Native activists fighting for their land and water. But many were also hoping to find a new purpose.
We set off from New Orleans at 11 PM—23:00—on Thursday, December 1. There are only four of us in a 12-passenger van, but it still feels cramped, packed as it is with everything we need to survive water cannons and rubber bullets in blizzard conditions. There are sub-zero sleeping bags, food and water, blankets, extra clothes, gas masks, helmets, and military-grade body armor. A handmade dreamcatcher dangles from the rearview.
The veterans I'm traveling with are Adrienne Lahtela, 36 and a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan; Jonas Hair, 39, a former Navy navigation specialist; and Tom Anderson, 30, a former Navy medic deployed to Iraq. They are three of thousands who answered a call put out on November 11 by former Army lieutenant Wesley Clark Jr. and ex-Marine and retired Baltimore cop Michael Wood Jr., asking veterans from all over the country to come to North Dakota as human shields for the "water protectors"—activists who have been camped out near the Standing Rock reservation in an effort to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project being built by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP).
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, as the group calls itself, was just the latest voice to be raised against the pipeline, which critics said would endanger the water supplies of local Sioux—but the protests were about more than that. As they grew in size and as media outlets and celebrities took notice, the camps seemed to symbolize a stand against corporate greed, against white people ignoring the wishes of Native Americans, against all sorts of injustices.
Supporters donated $1.14 million to the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock* GoFundMe, which will eventually pay for the travel of just under 2,000 veterans. (According to Ashleigh Jennifer Parker, a spokesperson for the movement, "hundreds of thousands of dollars" have been reimbursed and all of the money should be distributed by January.) An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 more came separately, finding their own funds.