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Veterans Arrive at Standing Rock to Help Protesters Brace for Winter

Wilbur Hilton, left, a veteran from Flint, Mich., helps protester Sean Mercer measure two-by-fours for barracks at a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp on Dec. 3. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
Wilbur Hilton, left, a veteran from Flint, Mich., helps protester Sean Mercer measure two-by-fours for barracks at a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp on Dec. 3. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

CANNON BALL, N.D. -- Army veteran Ryan Kiesling said he can appreciate the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's view on the sanctity of water.

After returning home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, other veterans suggested Kiesling try surfing to help with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"That really helped me," said the 30-year-old, who served as an Army cavalry scout from 2007 to 2013. "I just go out there in the ocean and sit on the water, and it's the water that really helps."

Far from the ocean, Kiesling arrived Saturday at one of the larger Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps in North Dakota to help save another body of water -- Lake Oahe.

Several thousand people at the camps are protesting the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. They claim the oil pipeline, if ruptured, could contaminate drinking water in Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River about a half-mile from Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The protesters, who call themselves "water protectors," have developed the mantra "water is life."

Kiesling said they're right.

"The ocean, the water, it was my savior," he said. "The 'water is life' thing, it really stuck with me. It's something I believe in."

Veterans are gathering at points across the country to travel to Standing Rock Indian Reservation, most of them planning to arrive Sunday. They're answering a call from organizers Michael Wood Jr. and Wesley Clark Jr. - veterans who have said former servicemembers are uniquely equipped to handle what's become a tense and sometimes violent standoff between protesters and law enforcement.

In the past two days, veterans have been arriving in the hundreds. More than 2,000 in total are expected Sunday through Wednesday.

The veterans' arrival comes at a tense time at Standing Rock. It coincides with a deadline set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for oil pipeline protesters to leave some of the land around the construction site, and it comes just after the governor ordered protesters to evacuate. The situation has prompted response in the last few days from members of Congress and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The pipeline would stretch 1,172 miles underground, moving crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

In addition to fear of a possible pipeline leak, Sioux tribe members have also said the construction infringes on sacred grounds.

Energy Transfer Partners LP applied in 2014 to build the pipeline. By March 2016, it had secured approvals from the four states in which the pipeline would pass. A group of Native Americans have been protesting since April.

'Just trying to help'

The Army Corps of Engineers ordered the thousands of protesters living at the Oceti Sakowin Camp to leave by Dec. 5. The camp is on land managed by the Army Corps near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, just north of the Standing Rock reservation.

Soon after the Army Corps' orders, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalyrmple issued an emergency evacuation order mandating protesters leave the land. The governor and the Army Corps have said they want people out for safety reasons, especially with recent record-breaking snowfall in the area.

A North Dakota Emergency Services spokesman has since said that neither law enforcement nor the National Guard would be used to enforce the order, NPR reported.

Though law enforcement won't force people out, they are trying to prevent supplies from getting to protesters, Reuters reported. The governor's office has backed off earlier reports that a physical blockade would be established to prevent supplies from getting into the camp, but state emergency services officials told Reuters that people driving in supplies could be pulled over and fined up to $1,000.

On Saturday, the temperature at the reservation topped out in the mid-20s, and some snow was hardening into ice. More snow is expected Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

Temperatures are supposed to drop into single digits by midweek, with strong northern winds.

Protesters have reiterated they will stand their ground. And they're getting some help from the veterans.

As of Saturday morning, the group, dubbed "Veterans Standing for Standing Rock," had raised more than $1 million through a GoFundMe webpage. Some of the money will be used to help veterans travel to the site, and other money will go toward the purchase of supplies to help protesters withstand the winter.

Sean Strahan, a 33-year-old Army veteran, helped haul firewood from Bismarck on Saturday morning. It was being stored under a tarp next to a tent in the heart of the camp that's being used as headquarters for the group of veterans.

"I'm just trying to help," said Strahan, who is from Indianapolis. "People have quit their jobs and moved out here. I think we can offer them a moment of rest and reprieve."

Across the camp from Strahan, Vietnam War veteran Don Luker of Boston used a table saw to cut pressure-treated wood that would become the floor of a makeshift barracks.

Luker, 66, worked as a carpenter for 40 years before retiring six weeks ago, he said. He's planning to stay until Friday to help build some infrastructure for the protesters.

Luker said he is part Cherokee. Growing up, he was instructed not to divulge that part of his heritage.

"I was taught never to tell anybody," Luker said. "Well, here we are now. Let me help my brothers and sisters. That was our job in the military, too: to try to do things that are right."

Anthony Diggs, a Marine Corps veteran from San Clemente who is acting as spokesman for the the group of veterans, said they would establish resources such as medical and supply tents, lines of communication and heating systems.

'Unnerving and unnecessary'

The veterans' presence at the site has drawn criticism the last few days from other veterans.

On Thursday, a North Dakota veterans group sent a letter to organizers Wood and Clark, saying their involvement in the protest would reflect poorly on all veterans.

The letter was written by the North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council, which falls under the state-run Department of Veterans Affairs and comprises representatives from large veterans organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

In the letter, the council accuses oil pipeline protesters of instigating violence, stealing from local stores and restaurants and harming or destroying private and government property.

The letter mentions some specifics, including vandalism at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. last month. The North Dakota column of the memorial was vandalized with spray paint. Though officials said they weren't certain what the graffiti said, multiple news outlets reported it apparently read "#NODAPL," a popular hashtag used by protesters on social media.

"By aligning yourselves with protesters who have committed these atrocities and continue to do so, you are going to greatly diminish the good image of yourself as a veterans, veteran organizations, and veterans as a whole," the letter reads. "You will also be aligning yourself against the N.D. law enforcement officers and military personnel that you once stood with to defend this nation."

Another group, the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, which supports the pipeline, said in a written statement that it was important to remember veterans were on the opposite side of the issue, too.

The alliance's spokesman, Craig Stevens, wrote in an email that more than 60 percent of workers on the Dakota Access Pipeline are veterans, but he would not offer specifics about that number when asked.

"It's important to remember that there are veterans on both sides of this issue who have served honorably to protect Americans' right to protest, as well as Americans' right to work and live in a safe and harassment-free environment," Stevens wrote in an email. "We respect the service of all veterans, yet the notion that some would descend upon Cannon Ball as self-purported 'human shields' is both unnerving and unnecessary."

One veteran at the Oceti Sakowin Camp -- 38-year-old Douglas Concha, an Iraq War veteran -- said he wasn't too surprised at the backlash.

"Whatever you do, you're going to get criticism," he said. "You listen to them out of respect, and maybe some of their points are valid, but don't get caught up in it. I think it's very natural for veterans and soldiers in general, this idea of defending something good and pure. I think the idea makes sense here."

Political murk

As veterans prepare to make a stand at the site -- against the cold, the pipeline and the local, state and federal government -- another fight is happening in Washington.

On the House floor Wednesday, North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, read the letter from the North Dakota Veterans Coordinating Council. In an impassioned speech, he said outsiders with a "left-wing political agenda" had co-opted peaceful protests and turned them into a "full-fledged riot."

Another North Dakota lawmaker, Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican, had taken to the Senate floor Wednesday to advocate for President Barack Obama to issue an easement that would allow Energy Transfer to build past the border of Lake Oahe.

The Army, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior issued an order in September halting construction beyond the border of Lake Oahe until more environmental assessments are conducted. Energy Transfer said at the time that it had already spent $1 billion on the oil pipeline and would not re-route it.

The pause in construction is unnecessary because the company had already gone through appropriate legal processes to start work, Hoeven said.

"The ongoing protest activities, which at times have turned violent, are being prolonged and intensified by the Obama administration's refusal to approve the final remaining easement at Lake Oahe," he said. "This inaction has inflamed tensions, strained state and local resources, and, most importantly, is needlessly putting people at risk, including tribal members, protesters, law enforcement officers, construction workers and area residents."

He also called for federal law enforcement agencies to augment state and local law enforcement.

On Friday, the Morton County Sheriff's Office - the main law enforcement agency at the site - echoed Hoeven's request. Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a written statement that he asked Attorney General Lynch for federal resources Friday during a phone call.

"While I appreciate the Attorney General taking the time to reach out to me, neither assistance for law enforcement nor a timeline for resolution was offered," Kirchmeier said.

Lynch released her own statement Friday night. In a video, she said the Justice Department has attempted to reduce tensions and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and tribal leaders.

"Let me stress that violence is never the answer and that all of us have a responsibility to find common ground around a peaceful resolution where all voices are heard," Lynch said.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has been a supporter for the oil pipeline protesters and stated early on that she would join the veterans at Standing Rock this weekend.

Gabbard, who is a veteran of the Hawaii Army National Guard, arrived in Bismarck on Friday night. She will be part of a news conference that the group of veterans is planning Monday morning.

"This weekend I'm joining thousands of veterans from across the country at Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with our Native American brothers and sisters," Gabbard said on the House floor Thursday. "Together we call on President Obama to immediately halt the construction of this pipeline."

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