The news came hard on the heels of the Trump Army’s approving full-speed-ahead on the multi-billion-dollar Dakota Access pipeline planned at the Standing Rock reservation: American war veterans are returning to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where they vow to form a human shield protecting the Lakota Sioux and their supporters from authorities out to evict them at protest camps near the construction area. In early December, the presence of some 2,000 veterans had coincided with the Army Corps of Engineers halting the project pending an environmental impact review, a decision that’s now being ignored by the new administration.
A just-arrived 34-year-old Air Force veteran, Elizabeth Williams, was quoted in The Guardian today: “We are prepared to put our bodies between Native elders and a privatized military force. We’ve stood in the face of fire before. We feel a responsibility to use the skills we have.”
To learn more about the vets’ motivation, I put a call in to Pete McCloskey. He’s a former Republican U.S. Congressman from California (1967-83) who ran for President on an anti-Vietnam War platform in 1972. McCloskey served as co-chairman of the first Earth Day in 1970. He’s also a decorated combat veteran, who received two Purple Hearts as a Marine during the Korean War (the subject of his fourth book, The Taking of Hill 610).
Last September, McCloskey celebrated his 89th birthday with his wife Helen at Standing Rock. “We spent two nights up there, a wonderful experience,” he told me. “They’d set up a mess line and people from all over the country were sending in food. The second day I was supposed to go up on the front line and get arrested. But the confrontation that day turned out to be further up the pipeline, so by the time we got close enough, it was over. Helen told me later she’d brought a thousand dollars in cash to bail me out.”
At that point, other American veterans had yet to arrive. “The spirit of those Indians, after all the injustices they’d suffered, is what triggered the vets,” McCloskey said. “I’ll never forget watching a group riding in on horses all the way from Fort Pike, Montana. Look, an awful lot of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans know they were duped into fighting for a cause they didn’t believe in and saw friends killed. These same veterans now look back and realize how terrible our army treated particularly the Sioux. We had a treaty that we’d leave the Black Hills to them, then broke it when gold got discovered.”
On his way to Standing Rock, Pete and Helen visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of at the Sioux reservation in South Dakota. He felt deeply moved, bringing to mind his traveling back to North Korea two years ago. There the former Congressman had a chance to speak with one of the 17-year-old soldiers he’d fought against. “We had tanks and artillery, yet they stood and fought, and I really respected the bravery of these kids.”
McCloskey spoke of how he didn’t realize he suffered from PTSD until about fifteen years ago – “when I started having dreams about people I’d shot point-blank in Korea.” This followed the reunion with his American comrades that transpired as they turned sixty – and were able to admit similar traumas surfacing in themselves.
McCloskey added: “The problem for these young vets of Iraq and Afghanistan is, they don’t have anyone to talk to. They’ve seen women and children killed, and maybe done it themselves. So I think what’s spurring these guys is that they want to do something right. They want to stand up against injustice. And they’re seeing injustice happening with the Corps of Engineers and the hoodlums that the oil companies have hired. Five hundred veterans arriving would have been inspirational, and you had two thousand show up the day they were gonna tear the camp down!”
Since last autumn, some 700 people have been arrested at Standing Rock – up against everything from pepper spray to tear gas, rubber bullets and Mace to powerful water cannons. It’s still wintertime as the latest confrontation looms. But as one 61-year-old veteran now at the Standing Rock camp puts it: “We have the experience of standing in the face of adverse conditions – militarization, hostility, intimidation.”
Another, 66-year-old Dan Luker from Boston, says he’s ready to be hit by police ammunition if need be. “This is the right war, right side,” he added. “Finally, it’s the US military coming onto Sioux land to help, for the first time in history, instead of coming onto Sioux land to kill natives.”
And a bond exists between the Native Americans and the Iraq/Afghanistan vets that many would never have expected. Through the police violence and mass arrests, dozens of the tribal people have developed PTSD symptoms. “We are able to talk about PTSD,” says a Mescalero Apache woman. “And they [the vets] finally feel like they are understood.” At the same time, “we don’t know how to protect ourselves against the tactical weapons they are using. And they are getting us better prepared.”
“I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen now,” says Pete McCloskey of this last stand at Standing Rock. “But it reminds me of the 1972 Republican convention when a thousand-or-so Vietnam vets marched on the hotel where Nixon was about to be coronated. These guys were lean and hungry-looking, led by five men in wheelchairs. They wanted to have a meeting with Nixon about the war, and finally three of them were let through. I remember walking through that police line taking the vets some cold drinks. The Miami cops all had their clubs out – but they didn’t want any part of messing with those guys. Now, with these fellows who’ve been shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think either side will take it lightly.”