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Veterans Return to Standing Rock, 'Not Backing Off' Pipeline Protests

A few hundred veterans gathered on Dec. 4, 2016 in a field south of a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. to hear welcoming remarks from protest leaders. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
A few hundred veterans gathered on Dec. 4, 2016 in a field south of a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. to hear welcoming remarks from protest leaders. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Army veteran Wilbur Hilton stood alongside thousands of other protesters in North Dakota in December, when it was announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily halted construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for an environmental review.

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline, who had camped for months on the banks of the Missouri River – in sometimes extreme conditions – celebrated the news Dec. 5 with victory dances and drum circles that lasted into the night. Thousands of veterans were present, having traveled to North Dakota for the weekend in a large show of support for the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes.

"That was a very exhilarating moment," said Hilton, who served during the Vietnam War. "It felt like we were doing something that mattered."

But Hilton, 61, celebrated with hesitancy that night, as did nearly everyone else at the campsite.

"People were very, very happy, although cautiously," he said. "We all had the feeling this was going to be overturned when the new administration came in."

On Tuesday – following an executive order signed Jan. 24 by President Donald Trump – the Army approved construction of the pipeline, clearing the way for the final piece to be built under the Missouri River near the reservation. Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer announced to Congress that the Army intended to grant the final permit.

For veterans who had converged on Standing Rock in December, the decision instigated another call to action for what protest leaders are calling a "last stand."

The group Veterans Stand, which was born out of the veterans' movement in Standing Rock, vowed to send a second wave of resources to protesters who have been camped near the construction site since April. As of Wednesday morning, they had raised about $181,000, which will go toward supplies, as well as travel expenses for veterans returning to the protest camps, said Marine veteran Anthony Diggs, spokesman for the group.

Diggs and a small number of other veterans returned to protest camps in North Dakota this week to make plans for more of their group to arrive. Protest leaders have asked the veterans to help with tasks around the camp, including building new shelters.

The veterans will remain nonviolent, Diggs said.

"That's the power of peaceful protest, they don't know what to do when we refuse to give up nonviolence as our main approach," Diggs said Tuesday night from North Dakota. "I'm not saying people shouldn't be fired up and passionate about what's happening, but we have to keep our wits about us and remember what we're trying to achieve."

Hilton and many other veterans who traveled to North Dakota in December are on standby, preparing for the call to return to protest.

A native of Flint, Michigan – where drinking water contamination is an ongoing crisis -- Hilton said he and his family have been failed by poor governance. While building a shelter at a Standing Rock camp in December, Hilton explained the water crisis that he experienced was part of his motivation to travel the 1,200 miles to stand with others who feared for their water supply.

"We're still trying to do whatever we can to help," he said. "No one is discouraged. We're not backing off of this one."

Energy Transfer Partners has been waiting to complete the final piece of the 1,172-mile, multibillion-dollar pipeline, which, if complete, would route approximately 450,000 barrels of crude oil each day through North Dakota to pipeline networks in Illinois. The last 1,100 feet of the pipeline route would stretch under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River about a half-mile from the Standing Rock reservation.

Opponents of the pipeline say the construction infringes on sacred grounds and, if ruptured, that oil would contaminate drinking water. Energy Transfer Partners has maintained the pipeline is safe.

The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, which supports the pipeline, responded to Trump's action, saying it was a positive signal to businesses looking to invest in America.

"President Trump's decision shows businesses that the rule of law will be respected," the coalition wrote in a statement.

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