Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii congresswoman, a first-termer who is also an Iraq war vet, is part of Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, a Facebook-born movement less than a month old that mobilized five thousand veterans from all fifty states and at least five wars. In addition to the veterans who arrived via airplane, two hundred buses arrived on Saturday along with hundreds of carpools from every state in the Union. Sunday’s victory against the proposed Dakota Pipeline route proves that an army of eleven thousand unarmed peacekeepers is difficult to ignore. Though we haven’t heard much about veteran activism in recent years, there is historical precedent for it.
It evokes the ghost of Walter W. Waters, a cannery worker in Oregon who as a sergeant in the Oregon National Guard had fought Pancho Villa in 1910 before deploying to France in 1918 and a decade later helped lead forty thousand unemployed veterans on a “Bonus March” to Washington in 1932. Known then as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, those veterans encamped on the lawn of the US Capitol building before being violently suppressed by General Douglas MacArthur. But the Bonus March helped make veterans’ compensation a core of the New Deal and engendered a far broader discussion of the nation’s obligations to its citizen soldiers.
Many Vietnam veterans are on the scene as well. Bill Perry, who arrived in a wheelchair, remembers well a similar encampment in 1971: Operation Dewey Canyon III was part of a GI movement that over time broke the Vietnam War. It was during the Vietnam War that dissent and resistance among soldiers and vets exploded into a large-scale phenomenon. Back then, as the nation’s confidence in the United States government and military slipped, soldiers became more vocal, organized, and strategic in their dissent.
Keith Mather, a veteran and activist in the 1990s, chained himself in 1968 to eight other service members, part of the iconic “Nine for Peace” protest. Mather sees the same ripple effect that I do, and told me, exultingly, this week: “It is a critical moment in our lives as progressive nonviolent resistance has its time at the front. Great radicalization comes from action and resistance in the face of oppression.”
The most recent explosion of support emerged after protestors were injured by state police’s military-grade crowd control gear. Six injured protesters filed suit, requesting “an immediate injunction preventing the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement from using impact munitions such as rubber bullets and lead-filled ‘beanbags,’ water cannons and hoses, explosive teargas grenades and other chemical agents against protesters.”
This gear is familiar to many of the veterans arriving at Standing Rock this weekend. Dakota Blue Serna, a former marine from Michigan, was in Iraq for the Second Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury) and was trained to use rifles, rockets, and automatic weapons. “I saw some horrible things I wish I didn’t see, which included my friend dying at my feet,” he said. After he returned home and became part of the Regimental Guard, Serna came up-close to military crowd-control training: “It was required that all sentries be sprayed with OC [pepper spray],” Serna said, “so we could know how to operate if we ever caught a whiff of it if we ever sprayed anyone. [It was] some of the most intense pain I’ve ever been in.”
He has a visceral reaction to seeing footage of these tactics used against protestors. “Ferguson would probably be the first time I saw this,” he said. “I watched live feeds of police firing tear gas on people not participating in the riots and on private property.” A year later, the incidents at Standing Rock were broadcast in real time. “The live feeds I watched were awful,” he said. “The very next day, the sheriff came out and said that they didn’t use a water cannon. Then the story changed to they were putting out fires.” Around Thanksgiving, when Serna heard the call for a “veterans’ battalion” to guard the water protectors, he was sold. “I can’t sit by and watch peaceful people be brutalized in my own country.”
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock’s core aim was to offer a buffer zone between protesters and police. “This is what we signed up for,” Serna said. “This is where our passion is. We signed up to defend the people here in our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And right now, I love my government, I love my country, but the government is cracking down on peaceful protesters, and it broke my heart to watch these people being sprayed with water in twenty-five-degree temperatures. That’s inhumane, that’s unethical, and that’s un-American.”
The original call for Veterans Stand was issued by Wesley Clark Jr., son of the former Army general, and Michael A. Wood, a former Army infantryman and Baltimore police officer. In interviews, Wood talks about the number of young vets like Serna. “The army trained us and sent us overseas to kill brown people,” he said. “Now, these guys and young women are really serving their country for the first time.” Word spread quickly on Facebook. The original goal was to involve five hundred veterans, but they ended with enough veterans to fill as many busses. The event’s GoFundMe campaign became a community of its own while raising nearly $1 million.
“This is huge,” Serna said on Friday. “I hope that this is the tipping point where we as an entire race take into consideration how much we are really destroying this planet by sucking out her oil and spilling all over the place, and we all work together with better way to produce, refine, and transport our fuel.”
This particular victory is unprecedented, as Cornel West tweeted on Sunday evening, in that it’s the first time American soldiers were working under tribal leadership: “To have American soldiers, who have often been called to fight in America’s imperial wars, many of them for oil or resources, to become part of the spiritual warriors, [working] under Native American leadership—that’s unprecedented.” Union Army lieutenant Silas Soule, who I wrote about in Guernica a few years back, would smile at West’s statement, 152 years after Soule refused orders to slaughter Arapaho during the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.
Veterans Stand may not have modeled itself on previous movements explicitly, but the lineage is clear to some of us–including the filmmakers now following the vets at Oceti Sakowin Camp. With them, maybe I’m helping us return to an era when soldier protesters were addressed everywhere from congressional hearings to Esquire cover stories. By choosing Standing Rock, these vets are also trying to act to redress some of the oldest wounds inflicted in their name.
“We won this battle,” Serna posted as the sun went down on Sunday evening. “And we didn’t have to throw any blows or fire any shots.”