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.

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Dec 17 2016, 1:00pm

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.

The goal, per Clark on the GoFundMe page, was to "defend the water protectors from assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force and DAPL security," who had become notorious for using aggressive methods—including firing water cannons in freezing temperatures—against the activists. Ultimately the veterans won't get a chance to do this, since the Army will deny a needed permit and force DAPL to be rerouted before they even march. But the trip wasn't just about a narrow political goal. It was about the expectations of thousands of veterans who showed up wanting to do something good, in many cases wanting to redeem themselves for things they did in the service—and coming away confused, angry, inspired, and energized.

Jonas in the van. This photo and all photos below by author.

The first six hours, Tom drives and Adrienne chatters. She's tired from dancing to Dolly Parton at an arena show the night before, but she hates sleeping in cars. She talks about Afghanistan, how her unit smeared powdered donut sugar on each other when they slept, how they faked seizures to mess with medics, how Afghans worried that soldiers used sunglasses to see through their clothes.

Tom is from Long Island and has its outline inked on his forearm. He has a poli-sci and philosophy degree, sells e-cigs, and is contemplating a masters. He's here because he views the DAPL pipeline as a treaty violation. "The part of me that really does love my country thinks we should be good enough to uphold the obligations that we made," he says.

Adrienne speaks Japanese and runs a transport business with her wife. She's lived in ten states, one territory, and three countries. "This is a gut-check on integrity," she says. "If a group of us that have been ambassadors for our country feel that this isn't right, I think people should listen... I'm a nobody, I get it. But if enough nobodies are tired of something, it'll change."

Jonas, who signed his government contract straight from high school, is on a midlife vision quest. Ten months ago he was working nearly 100 hours a week, managing nightclubs in his home state of Pennsylvania. "I knew I would be doing the same thing at 49 if I didn't stop," he says. He moved to New Orleans to bartend and has been following the protest for months. "I've always been kind of searching, wondering what else is out there. Guess I'm still trying to identify what that is."

While everyone else sleeps, he plays New Orleans punk-electronica, ROAR, and Tribe Called Quest, before settling on a bluegrass station. That's when, in the spindly-treed, winter-hills of Arkansas, he has an encounter with what he terms "spirit animals." Over barbecue in Kansas City, he tells us about the birds, thousands of them rising en mass, swirling the sky into blackened chaos before dispersing in geometric patterns. He's sure it's a sign.

At a truck stop in Iowa, Adrienne meets two hunters who recount an incident with a sasquatch. She hopes it isn't a sign. America goes on, the accents getting better and the truck-stop vegetables getting blander.

In the early hours of December 3, we arrive in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, our registration point. Local Lakota serve us fry-bread tacos, and we toss our sleeping bags on the first of many gym floors and sleep with the overheads half-lit. The first leg of our trip is done.

A line of cars descending into the Oceti Sakowin camp

When we awake three hours later, hundreds more veterans have arrived. Jay Cooke, a Cheyenne River Lakota, speaks to the group; without a hint of irony, he thanks the US Army and the Morton County Sheriff for bringing the tribes together. Tom, sensitive to ritual, stands apart. Many vets steal bites of breakfast while Cooke speaks, but Tom listens with his head bowed, cameo baseball cap dangling from his hands.

Things seem organized. We sign rosters and are briefed on frontline and arrest protocol. Around 17:00, we follow a convoy that includes two U-Hauls containing 35,000 pounds of donated vegetables. We pass 130 miles of empty winter fields before joining an inching line of cars, then we're on a bridge and suddenly, there it is—the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires Council) camp, a sprawling teepee city of roughly 10,000, directly beneath us. It's bookended by the thinly frozen Cannonball River and the sun setting against distant hills. This is the land that the Army Corps of Engineers and North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple recently recently ordered evacuated, and our home for the next three days.

Adrienne in the van

Shortly after descending into camp, our van gets stuck and we tumble out into chilled air smelling of sage and smoke. Headlights and strung holiday lights punctuate the twilight, and people cluster around a fire where colorful towels dry on a line. Pipes poke through tents and yurts. Kids sled and adults bustle, chopping wood or heading to kitchen tents. We've lost 40 hours and 40 degrees since we left New Orleans—the camp feels like a different universe. It makes Adrienne think of Westworld, even though she's not sure she should say so.

Oceti Sakowin is the largest of several camps, formed to manage overflow after Sacred Stone, a mile east, reached capacity. It's closest to a burial ground that Lakota call Turtle Island, which also happens to be ETP's construction site. Just across the Cannonball River is a third, smaller camp, Rosebud. The main drag of Oceti Sakowin is Flagpole Road, where you can find the primary medic tent and the Sacred Fire, which serves as camp center. Often there's drumming or prayer near the fire, and there's always a booth offering free coffee and sometimes cedar tea, also called "Indian Pepto-Bismol." Campsites are sometimes organized according to tribes or states and sometimes organized according to nothing in particular. There are medic tents scattered throughout the camp, along with a handful of "kitchens," sweat lodges, a shelter for lost pets, and a "free boutique" of donated and abandoned outerwear. There's a glowing dome used for films, meetings and art events and an assortment of construction projects, including compostable toilets.

We find the veterans tent, large and heated by a wood stove, sign another list, and ask for info. There may or may not be a meeting in Fort Yates, about 40 minutes away. There may or may not be a debriefing here after. We've arrived.

The camp at twilight

The Standing Rock reservation has its origins in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the US government granted the Sioux rights to land that became the Great Sioux Reservation. However, a good portion of that land was taken from the tribe in 1877, when whites suspected that the Sioux's sacred Black Hills contained gold. In 1980, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that the government owed the tribe $102 million for the land—but the Sioux have refused the money ever since, even as the amount has grown to $1 billion thanks to interest. Instead, they're holding out for the return of the land itself. This sort of conflict exemplifies the sometimes tense relationship between the Sioux and the US government.

In April, members of the Standing Rock Lakota tribe started the camp known as Sacred Stone in the path of the 1,000-mile pipeline designed to transport oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to a port in Illinois. The DAPL was slated to go within half a mile of reservation land, and the Lakota worried that a leak would threaten their water supply; they say they were never consulted, though legally they should have been, and they claim the pipeline has already cut through sacred grounds.

Protests against the DAPL intensified over the summer and fall, and the national media slowly began to take notice. In late October, 141 activists were arrested after some of them blocked roads by setting fires and locked themselves to vehicles. Then, just before Thanksgiving, on a 28-degree night, the police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets on the activists. And something (whether it was a concussion grenade or a "friendly" propane tank is a matter of dispute) nearly blew the arm off a 21-year-old woman from New York.

The veterans who've come to North Dakota have varying opinions on the pipeline, but none of them are comfortable with that sort of force against civilians. It's the violence, above all, that they've come to oppose. And now they're here. But what next?

Adrienne, Jonas, and Tom set off for the Cannon Ball Rec Center, about four miles from camp, where they were told to register back at Eagle Butte. Adrienne wants to hunker down, eat soup, and lay out our sleeping bags. But Tom is hell-bent on finding his "orders," so we drive to Fort Yate's Sitting Bull Community College, 40-minutes away.

They sign another list ("More loose-leaf paper!" Adrienne groans) and find a room packed with veterans listening to speeches, drums, and chanting. There are no orders here. We end up driving around Fort Yates for another half an hour, looking for yet another gym, before cranking the volume on the only station we get—an amalgamation of skating rink rock and Ozzfest metal—and cruising back to Cannon Ball.

Adrienne announces that tomorrow, she's heading to camp on her own—"That way y'all don't have to deal with my nagging ass." Screw the orders, she thinks. She's not in the Army anymore.

People celebrate after the announcement that the DAPL will be rerouted

At 05:00 the next morning, December 4, we shake awake, dressing in layers. About a dozen vets are walking to camp before dawn to participate in a water ceremony, which is beautiful and unfamiliar to us. People line a steep hill leading to the banks of the Cannonball River, chanting and singing. Some of the songs are spirituals: "Wade in the Water" and "This Little Light of Mine." Others are in indigenous languages.

At the bank, people kneel and sprinkle tobacco. One man makes the sign of a cross. The sun rises over the frozen water and Rosebud camp, across the way.

While we are gone, a short itinerary is emailed to the vets. It lists a few ceremonies and a single march on the Backwater Bridge, the sight of several conflicts between water protectors and the police.

"It's like a cruise itinerary," Jonas muses.

"That's it? Three days of culture and one day of action?" Adrienne mutters. They gather their things. Tom can stay, but no way are they spending another night in a gym.

There's still no word from "higher up," so a few veterans assume leadership and organize others. Jonny Gorido, a 30-year-old former Marine from New York, starts a list for frontline volunteers. But most of the self-appointed leaders urge people to wait.

At Oceti Sakowin, Adrienne finds some members of the antiwar nonprofit Veterans for Peace (who have answered the call "unofficially") camping and building wooden barracks. She pitches a tent and is improvising insulation with hay bales and cardboard when a woman sprints by, shouting that DAPL is over.

Confused, Adrienne tries to find information on her phone, but can't get a signal. So, task-oriented, she finishes winterizing the tent. Today the weather is mild, but she's thinking about tomorrow. There's supposed to be a storm.

At the Sacred Fire, the news is confirmed by elders. Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army assistant secretary of civil works has called: Necessary permits were denied. The DAPL will be rerouted. For the water protectors, that means dancing, drumming, singing, flag and staff waving, smudging, tobacco offerings, and repeated calls of " mini waconi" ("water is life"). Drones buzz above as the sun lowers, painting the crowd in a red glow.

People celebrate after the announcement that the DAPL will be rerouted

Celebrations continue that night, with fireworks blooming over teepees, even as the wind picks up and the temperature drops. There is a small drum circle just outside our favorite dining spot, called California Kitchen. Voices harmonize, pushing against the drums and sounding ancient and wise, before melding into a hand-clapping jig. As the group finishes, a green star arches across the sky, just over their heads.

That night, Adrienne and Jonas discuss the veterans "mission," and how it's changed.

"What's the new directive?" Jonas asks. Is the march still on for the next day? Should they stay in camp or drive 30 miles to the muster point as planned? The timing of the announcement has discombobulated people—it's a Sunday, the day before Oceti Sakowin was to be evacuated and the veterans were supposed to gather on the front lines. Was this decision made because "authorities" didn't want media images of freezing veterans being shot with water cannons?

"I think the vets showing up definitely had an effect," Adrienne says. "Like, it's OK to beat up on Native people but not veterans?"

A veteran addresses a group from the top of a woodpile

On Monday, December 5, a group of vets prepares for the planned march at 13:00. It's going ahead, despite the Army decision on the DAPL. They gather around a woodpile, some clad in helmets and gas masks. The temperature is a single digit.

An older vet climbs the woodpile, taking charge.

"Under a ceasefire, my corps has never walked into a camp... in an aggressive manner, which is exactly what we are doing when we put this battle gear on," he says. "We are giving those sons of bitches up there...the opportunity to put a black mark against us and this organization." He gestures to the news trucks lining the ridge.

Most vets take off their military-grade equipment. But there is a dissenter.

"We can't defend ourselves?" the man shouts. "They've been shooting rubber bullets for fucking six months."

"They said stand there with us, peace and prayer. This morning Wesley Clark Jr. said in a press conference, no direct action!" a woman calls.

Someone else asks the million-dollar question. "Where is Wesley Clark? Raise your hand Wesley Clark!"

Wesley Clark is not at the woodpile.

"Who's in charge?" someone yells.

"The elders!"

As the veterans raise their voices, Adrienne walks away. "I'm not going to march with this," she says. "I'm not going to do anything that's not what the people want."

It's already begun snowing when the veterans march, about 1,200 of them walking calmly along the ridge for two hours. Some carry flags, some wheel the disabled, and everyone steps aside when Lakota come by on horses. Wesley Clark, we later learn, went to the Prairie Knights Casino, about ten miles outside of camp, for a "forgiveness ceremony" during which he and an entourage of vets apologized on behalf of the US government and military for breaking treaties, taking land and minerals, and blasting the face of presidents "on your sacred hills." The feel-good moment, which goes viral on social media, may be the climax of the Veterans Stand, though fewer than half of the vets are around to witness it.

During the march, the weather becomes unbearable. Snow blows horizontally and shards of ice pierce exposed skin. Without goggles, it's impossible to gaze anywhere but the ground. Dozens of journalists scatter up a slope, trying to get perspective shots, and some photographers clamber atop one of the burned-out trucks. Vets struggle to hold whipping flags in screaming wind.

When he reaches his tent, Jonas plunges his numb hands into his sleeping bag to warm them. His goggles are fogged, so it takes a long minute for him to realize that his hands are actually in a pile of snow. The entire inside of his tent is a pile of snow.

He slurs his words as we crank the van and pile in, blasting heat.

People, one in an Anonymous mask, stand in the snow

That night, we sleep in the van. The Vets for Peace make rounds, checking on tent sleepers every few hours. The next morning, a Native vet from Houston named Marissa Rocha pounds on our window and tells us to find a heated tent. Camp organizers want everyone accounted for.

At Rose's, the nearest kitchen, we hear rumors (later discredited) that there were hypothermia deaths last night. Someone says the dome caught fire and collapsed with 20 people inside. The elders are asking those without heated structures to leave.

We break down camp rapidly, packing gear in the back and anything life-sustaining—food, water, the propane heater—up front, in case we get stranded on the road.

"Has anyone heard from Tom?" Jonas asks.

"He texted from the casino about 17:00 yesterday," Adrienne says. Now he's not responding to texts. Calls go straight to voicemail.

On the main road, in the first 20 minutes we pass at least a dozen cars wrecked or stuck in massive snowdrifts. We skid by cars that need help, because the roads are too icy to stop. A snowplow passes and after that, it's a smooth path to Fort Yates, where we find the gym housing vets. We sign another paper and ask about Tom. His sleeping bag is here, but he's not.

We discover that after the forgiveness ceremony, bus drivers weren't willing to chance the road back to Fort Yates. The elders squabbled about what to do with the vets. They were given buffet tickets, but should they also be given drink tickets? Wasn't Veterans Stand an alcohol-free event? Ultimately some of the vets drank and some gambled, and most slept on bleachers or on the floor in an auditorium without blankets.

We change our socks, drink tea, and call the casino to have Tom paged.


Veterans march in the snow

In Fort Yates, the vets are restless. Some of them have been in gyms for days and never saw camp. They're debating whether or not Wesley Clark Jr. is actually a veteran. (In fact, he was in the Army for four years.) They're wondering why they haven't been reimbursed from the GoFundMe account. They don't know which elders authorized the march because they say other elders wrote a letter, co-signed by Clark, stating that it was inappropriate and asking vets to go home. (Days later, Clark denies this via a tweet.)

"It's like we're purposely not given information and kept away from the camps," says John Hales, 48, an Army and Navy vet from Virginia.

"You got us mobilized... now we can't get to camp, can't get any feedback," says Sam Deering, 28, another Navy vet from Virginia. "It seems like we brought the cameras, and now they're kicking us out."

Later, some veterans and members of the tribe will complain about this disorganization to the media. Clark will admit that some aspects of the operation were "atrocious and chaotic," blaming a bigger-than-expected turnout, the horrible weather, and the confusion after the unanticipated victory. According to spokesperson Parker, GoFundMe had to loan Veterans Stand $150,000 to pay immediate expenses, while the majority of the funds remain tied up in banks.

As for the three vets I travelled with, they were paid before we left town, and the Louisiana-based vets don't seem disgruntled.

Tom finds us later that night, at 21:00. He spent most of the day, December 6, sitting and waiting on a bus that was supposed to take him from the casino to Fort Yates. Finally, it did. "I missed a lot of stuff at camp, but some of the ceremonies I saw were super heavy," Tom says. "I feel like, I don't know, like I went to a therapy session or something. I was crying half the week."

Adrienne is interested in helping construct an eco-village, a movement spearheaded by LaDonna Bravebull, the founder of Sacred Stone Camp. She doesn't care that she never saw the frontlines. "We were there for the fight, but we didn't have to go into battle the same way," she says. "We were able to shift our focus."

She loves the camp, where she "really felt like part of a movement." And she had her picture taken with her wife's hero, Cornel West, when the activist made a brief appearance at the Cannon Ball Rec Center.

Jonas, though, seems the most changed. Even his voice is different—lower, more hoarse. He keeps breathlessly recounting what he calls "frontline action." He's the only one of us who made it to the contested Backwater Bridge, an area elders discouraged water protectors from entering because they're trying to avoid direct conflict. But on Sunday, Jonas and some Chicago veterans who called themselves a "medic team" (one of them actually is a nurse) were allowed through. Jonas never saw law enforcement, but there were a couple of mysterious white SUVs among scattered concrete barriers and a handful of aggressive veterans they had to dissuade from crossing the bridge.

The next day, during the veterans march, he "held the line," meaning he joined a row of Natives who linked arms to keep the crowd from approaching the construction site. The drama of being a gatekeeper ignited some long suppressed sense of urgency. He'd felt this excitement in his months backpacking once he left the Navy, but years of handling petty employees had reordered his priorities. He's already talking about going back to Standing Rock.

"Whatever I'm doing from here out, I'm going to take part in the things I'm passionate about," he says. "Not just sit on the sidelines and watch it all pass by. It's not gonna happen any more."

Cheree Franco is a writer and photographer, mostly working in Arkansas, Mississippi, New York, and Pakistan.

Top image by Jonas Hair.

Update 12/17: An earlier version of this article used the wrong name for the group that began the GoFundMe campaign. It's Veterans Stand for Standing Rock not Veterans for Standing Rock.

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