Veterans deploy for justice at Standing Rock

The water protectors are facing a showdown in North Dakota over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens to poison the water and further destroy sacred Native sites. But solidarity has poured in from around the country. Military veterans are among the many people who have traveled to the Oceti Sakowin camp to offer their support.

Garett Reppenhagen served in the U.S. Army as a Cavalry/Scout Sniper in the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, receiving an Honorable Discharge in May 2005. He has worked as a veteran's advocate and activist, as a member of About Face: Veterans Against War (formerly Iraq Veterans Against the War). He talked to Eric Ruder about his visit to Standing Rock and why this struggle is important for veterans.

Veterans are taking part in the fight against the Dakota Access PipelineVeterans are taking part in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline

CAN YOU talk about how you and other veterans in About Face got involved in organizing solidarity with the protests at Standing Rock?

IT STARTED as a personal drive to go there with my family and friends to try to make a difference. It just so happens a lot of my friends are military veterans since I served in the U.S. Army as a sniper in Iraq. I've been organizing with veterans since I've been out. I was honorably discharged in 2005. It drove other groups to try to get there and do something as well.

Any sort of social injustice out there is a cause for a lot of veterans who feel that they put skin in the game to make this country better in the face of the obvious violations of the values in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We know that these ideals were never a reality for a lot of demographics of people--but we should be there to defend these principles and make a stand for justice.

HOW DOES your firsthand experience of the reality of U.S. imperialism inform your thinking about what's happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline?

I ENSLISTED as a Cavalry Scout, and the U.S. Cavalry certainly has a history of genocide against Native Americans. So the brutality of colonization of this country is built on the backs of U.S. Cavalry soldiers, and we were the blunt edge, the Cavalry saber tip if you will, to dominate Indigenous people in the U.S.

When I was in Iraq, we went there under the pretense that we were going there to "take revenge" for 9/11 and stop "weapons of mass destruction." But it quickly became obvious that was a huge betrayal and the causes that drove us there were fraudulent.

What were the causes? There was obviously a huge drive for corporate profits in the military-industrial complex and control of Iraqi oil fields. That was a war that had a lot to do with fossil-fuel protection and consumption. A new frontline in the battle against environmental colonialism is now at Standing Rock.

And just like the Iraqis have every right to repel U.S. soldiers occupying their land, Natives have every right to defend their clean water and make sure that treaties that have been signed with the U.S. government are enforced. There was a lot of feeling that that was the moral high ground and the right thing to do and I think veterans took to it.

CAN YOU talk about your experience at the protest camp?

I WAS there for a little less than a week and it was amazing. It was a weird time because an activist named Sophia Wilansky had just been injured very severely by police violence. Her injury could result in her losing her arm. We were in the Oceti Sakowin camp, which is the frontline camp Army Corps of Engineers land--occupied land, I guess you would say--and people were reeling from the immense police violence during the altercation the night before.

The camps swelled as it got closer to Thanksgiving. And almost everybody there perceived that as the bullshit holiday that it is, so there was a lot of excitement over the massive amounts of people that came. I think the camp we were at swelled to almost 7,000 people during the time we were there, so it was really intense.

There were a lot of folks that were new. There was a great orientation--it was one of the first things that we did after we got our camp set up, and it was just amazing how much we learned. We had to be divided into three groups because there were just so many new people arriving at the camp that we were packed into an army general purpose median tent, standing room only, to receive amazing lessons.

I've never been in an activist situation where there was so much emphasis on non-violence and on maintaining the values and the principles that the Lakota have brought to this fight. It's really empowering, and it really gives you a foundation. It just felt like I was a part of something not only larger in a physical sense, but larger in a spiritual sense.

There were well-delivered trainings on civil disobedience. It's just amazing to see generations of protesters and activists in this country bringing that information to the front. Generally, the prayer circles, the attitude around camp, the sacredness of that site and the intentions of everybody there were really amazing to be part of.

At the same time, despite being involved in the antiwar movement during the Bush administration and the Occupy movement, I've never seen the sort of police brutality that I witnessed there. Arriving at the casino before we went into the camps, it seemed like we were behind the lines of a real war. People were resting and recuperating. The place looked like a refugee zone, with people leaning against the walls, trying to keep warm.

It's something I haven't seen since I've been twice to Iraq. To see these folks just huddled in the casino, trying to get warm food and nurse their injuries--everything from cold weather injury to hypothermia, to actual bullet wounds from rubber bullets--it was pretty intense and centered my mind about what we were going into.

That anxiety left a little bit once we got to the camp and realized we were on this sacred ground, and a lot of people were there taking care of each other, but the medical tents in the camps were full of people too. And there were so few medical personnel that a lot of people weren't being looked after. So, yes, that was a bit different from a lot of other actions and protests I've been to.

Almost anybody who recognized us as military veterans gave a great deal of respect to us, but it's not surprising. Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any ethnic demographic, and I asked a Blackfoot friend of mine who's in the Marines why that is. He said, "We've been fighting for this country long before white people got here. Why would we stop now?"

There's something revered about the warrior ethos and the warrior culture, and I think that still exists today. So we did get a lot of respect and we're obviously one element up there protesting alongside the other protectors, but in one sense there's less risk for military veterans because we have the credibility of being a veteran, which gets us a little more leniency from judges and law enforcement officers.

We have to give a lot of respect to the folks who don't have that protection, but are still out there taking risks every day to do what's right.

WHAT DO you think was behind the deadline that was set and then rescinded by the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the camp on Monday, December 5?

THIS IS just my opinion, but I think announcing the deadline was a bluff by the Army Corps of Engineers in hopes of stopping the inflow of people. Thousands and thousands of people showed up last week, and frankly I think it scared the hell out of the authorities.

I think passing on misinformation and using different scare tactics are all moves to try to keep the numbers down of folks who are going up that direction, maybe change some people's minds who are planning on making the trip.

But there are now thousands of people there, and this camp now has permanent structures built on it. People have invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building this camp. It takes half a day just to walk across all of the camps.

There are tents and physical structures as far as you can see, and frankly, they don't have the manpower to come and clear everybody out. Even if they used tear gas, I don't think the entire state has enough tear gas canisters to do the job.

There are a lot of people in the camp, so probably the best they could do is arrest people in ones and twos here and there, and if they can prove that they're on that land when they're out of camp, maybe that's an additional charge they can give.

But looking at that camp, as somebody who served in Iraq and has been involved in riot control and some other situations--with my 30-man scout platoon, armed with real-live ammunition and heavy caliber weapons, I would not have even thought of attempting to try to clear out that camp. So unless they bring a hell of a lot more manpower out to bear, that camp's going to stay there.

They might be able to impose additional arrests and fines on people who aren't in the camp if they can prove that they were. They've got constant surveillance of that camp, so that might be a way they try to target leaders. But they'd have to build up a massive force that they don't have currently, so it's going to take time if they're going to raid that camp.

The police forces that I saw out there were better armed and equipped than my scout platoon was in Iraq. They have anti-mine vehicles and grenade launchers and crazy riot control weapons. They're using water cannons in freezing temperature conditions on these folks--that certainly makes a non-lethal weapon very lethal, so maybe they could come to bear with some of the equipment that they have and try to take out sections of the camp, but I think it would be foolish and dangerous if they tried a full-scale raid on that camp.

IT SEEMS like the Obama administration is trying to save face by backing down, and perhaps figuring that the harsh winter will clear the camp without exposing Obama.

THE WEATHER is severe, but we brought a heavy weather tent with us that we left behind to donate that can fit easily 12 people in there. We also brought up a wood-burning stove, and there's other heaters and generators. So people are going to be able to live there.

The Indigenous people have lived outdoors in conditions like that before, and honestly, in some of the reservations, the housing that they have is not that great. It's not weatherized. That camp's going to stay there throughout the wintertime--the weather's not going to do it.

Obama basically asked that the Army Corps of Engineers halt temporarily and said that he was going to see how things went in the next couple of weeks--that was all before the election. I have no doubt that he was afraid to give any real severe orders that might damper the views of Democrats in the coming election--and little help did that do for them.

But it did stall a lot of things, and I'm pretty certain from what I heard up on that drill path, that they are drilling unpermitted underneath the lake, and that means they realize that whatever fine they would receive for drilling unpermitted won't exceed the money they'll lose every day oil doesn't pump through those pipes.

So, what Obama did before the election was absolutely toothless, and now with this current order from the Army Corps of Engineers, the White House is completely silent on the entire matter. It's just not surprising that they're not willing to do anything but try to appear at a minimum somewhat sympathetic to the folks at Standing Rock.

DO YOU think they might try to break up the camp by restricting access and supplies such as food?

THERE'S A direct way into the camp from the south, and that still exists, so if you go from the Prairie Knights Casino, which is south of the camps, north, you get straight into the Oceti camp from that direction. From the north, that same road is barricaded at the bridge, and that's where most of the conflicts and direct actions are targeting right now. That's where the cars were overturned and burned and that's the main access by foot to the drill pad and to the pipeline construction.

If they closed the road down further south and blocked off access into the reservation, I'm sure that would cause a lot more issues but there are still ways to get supplies there without driving, so I don't think that will stop things permanently.

WHAT SHOULD people do who are looking for ways they can express their support?

YOU CAN do direct actions in your local communities. A lot of businesses and banks that are supporting the pipeline are in your cities, so you don't have to go that far to organize and build a solidarity movement and do direct action in your towns. Donations are always needed. Legal funds are an absolute must right now.

There are money needs for transportation and bail. Folks are getting carted up as far as Fargo and then processed and let out of the jail in the middle of the night and early morning in freezing weather without money for a bus or for a hotel. So people need transportation dollars to get back to camp and get warm.

And a lot of gear, a lot of winterization gear. Heavy canvas tents, not summer tents, heavy winter clothes, like snowboarding jackets, gloves, hats, wood-burning stoves, propane, other heaters--those sorts of things are all badly needed. Especially if folks are going to start moving and joining the camps on the reservation, they're going to need to rebuild structures and have the supplies to do that.

And call your decision maker. Call decision makers in North Dakota--the governor, county commissioners, senators, members of Congress. Make sure that you pummel the White House with phone calls and e-mails and let them know that folks out there are watching and they're waiting for a response. Something has to come soon, if we're going to win this fight.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song