The arrival of thousands of U.S. military veterans to North Dakota’s Standing Rock protest camp last week made headlines, but tribal leaders and even some vets themselves are saying the operation was a dismal failure.
Hundreds of military veterans have begun leaving the main camp at Standing Rock after a lack of coordination and preparation left many without food or adequate shelter in the snow and sub-zero temperatures. The vets’ subsequent scramble to build shelter then angered tribal leaders.
“It has been a complete mess,” said Francisco Munoz, a former Marine who left the site of the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protest on Wednesday. “Every unit that was put together dispersed on their own. The only aspect that was organized was the travel in getting us there. There was no teams to focus on any specific tasks … and there was no preparation for the blizzard that hit us incredibly hard.”
At least 2,000 veterans arrived over the course of last week to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their fellow “water protectors,” as they call themselves, in the fight to block the Dakota Access oil pipeline. They cheered alongside protesters on Sunday after the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would look for alternate routes for the pipeline away from the disputed crossing over the Missouri River.
But some tribal leaders believed the vets did little to help bring about the incremental victory. “The vets thing was a shit show,” one of the headsman from the main protest camp said. A member of the Lakota tribe, he did not want to be named because he was concerned it would create rifts within the camp.
“All that work and money, and there was nothing to show for anything for the vets or for camp,” he added. “It’s in complete chaos right now because of this vet event.”
The Veterans Stand for Standing Rock effort, led by veterans Michael Wood Jr. and Wes Clark Jr. — the son of retired U.S. Army general and former presidential hopeful Wesley Clark — made waves after announcing thousands of veterans would voluntarily “take bullets” and protect protesters from police water cannons. But Munoz said that the group’s leaders seemed more interested in publicity.
“I was very disappointed in the leadership,” he said. “It seemed as if they focused on pictures and [media] stories instead of having accountability of all personnel.”
In a video posted on Facebook, Clark admitted that “logistics have been atrocious and chaotic,” attributing the situation to the “nature of self-organizing” and the fact that more veterans showed up than were expected.
Wood set up a GoFundMe account, which had nearly raised its $1.2 million goal as of Thursday morning. The veterans group have not said what exactly will be done with the money.
Army vet Andrew Gaz said tensions were high this week as shelter became scarce. Overcrowding at sites both in and outside the main camp meant even those attempting to leave the reservation had trouble finding places to sleep. A casino nearby was reportedly housing up to 10 people in a room and ran out of food early this week. Poor cellular reception made communication difficult.
“In the camp, a lot of vets were unprepared,” said Gaz, who retreated to a gymnasium outside Oceti Sakowin Camp early this week. He said the facility successfully housed about 200 people, though it started running out of food and medical supplies. “When I left, the vets group was building a permanent barracks out of wood without permission from the Sioux.”
That barracks — a structure the size of two semi-trailers, according to veterans and Native American protesters — angered tribal leaders who said that they felt the vets had swooped in and attempted to take over the protest movement even if the vets hadn’t intended to do so. Tribal leaders asked all non-Sioux protesters to leave the site Monday.
“I would like to see more organized activism from veterans groups,” Gaz said. “Use the shortcomings of this mobilization as a learning tool for future movements.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 13, 4:15 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the person behind the veterans’ GoFundMe. Michael Woods Jr. launched the campaign, not Wes Clark, Jr.