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Veterans Stand for Standing Rock in theory represented perfectly many of the obstacles and dilemmas that have at many times seemed like a plague to me. Moral Injury, Police Militarization, Post-Traumatic Stress, Environmental Protection, Military Industrial Complex, Isolation, Traumatic Brain Injury, Survivor’s Guilt, Depression, Post-Military Identity Complex, etc.; the list goes on…  It’s no wonder many of us are struggling, failing, drowning…

There are several reasons I was compelled to take part in this movement, as many recent returning veterans; I too struggle with finding purpose post-military service. It’s been ridiculously taxing attempting to recapture that sense of feeling as part of something substantial that I for so long believed came with being a Marine. It’s been practically impossible attempting to substitute that void and emptiness with the rigors of the incredibly mundane first-world problems we face daily here at the War at Home, far too many of us numb to it all. I’ve been successful thus far with considerable effort in piecing together practices and tools, which serve as alternatives to my previously understood sense of service. For too long conditioned and seduced by false narratives of glory, destruction and hyper –masculinity.

Experience with the Mission Continues both through a fellowship (Bravo Class 2014) and currently with the 1st Platoon Miami service platoon (Platoon of the Year, 2016) have been the catalyst I desperately NEEDED. In service I found salvation, its definition evolved and took ahold of me, fusing with my very spirit and providing wind for my sails. From past experience when I focused too much inwardly, feeling sorry for myself and for my disorders I tended to suffer most, it is when the haunting whispers of suicide would become loudest… When I attached purpose to my day, in some way doing some good for someone else or causing the least harm, taking part in something larger, I noticed that I was beginning to believe in people again. Quietly under the radar, I started to believe in myself.

Service has become redemption, incorporating the skills I attained in the military, most notable being the ability to keep calm under fire, metaphoric and literal and the affinity for getting shit done, of course talking some shit while doing it and utilizing this expertise here in our communities and having a positive impact on other people in a simple but powerful way.  Dozens of service projects and countless hours later, I have begun to see the domino effect it’s had on my recovery/transition, the immense sense of healing it has graciously allowed me to achieve.

For several months I have paid close attention to the events unfolding in North Dakota, being a {Combat} Hippie I drift towards the developments usually far from the mainstream spotlight, the ones which scream for social justice. Outraged by the amount of violence and apathy that the prayerful and peaceful Water Protectors were unleashed upon by the Morton County Sheriffs Department and several other law enforcement agencies from various states, I could not comprehend how this was happening in America. Pictures and video of the interactions showed heavily armed and armored law enforcement officers disguised as Special Ops straight out of your favorite video game, dispatching weapons familiar to me from military experience, against unarmed U.S. civilians. Mine-resistant vehicles, high-tech drones, high-powered rifles complete with optics, and the most notorious; a water cannon deployed in sub-freezing temperatures. It was enough to send your local Libertarian on a psycho induced frenzy and I was ready to join them! Naively, I believed the preceding decade-plus, chock full of invasion and war was ultimately to protect us in the U.S. from facing soldiers armed to the teeth on our very streets, guess I was wrong…

Pulling the reigns in, I’ve been able to keep myself composed, knowing that eventually I would have to make the trek and personally observe what was in fact taking place in North Dakota. When Veterans Stand for Standing Rock was announced I was ecstatic, this was the opportunity to get back in “the shit”; the excitement of a deployment down-range consumed me. This was different however, no longer in the military, this was a conscious choice and I was to decide the cause that I would fight for, or in this case, the cause I would protect for. “Who better than us?”

Another supreme draw for me were the peaceful and powerful methods that First Nation People’s used to counteract the Dakota Access Pipeline’s henchmen, violence was not an option and still torn from war I resonated with these principles. My experience at war has forged me into a pacifist, I learned that violence is not a solution; it is essentially a fundamental breakdown of communication and ultimately leads to no solution, just more confrontation.

It still greatly infuriates me that federal and state tax dollars are being used to pay police officers to protect not the Constitution, but instead a proposed 3.8 billion dollar crude oil pipeline spanning 1,172-miles across four states. While in Iraq, I constantly clashed in my mind and Soul with the moral implications that came with serving as an occupying force on foreign, formally sovereign soil. It ate at me tirelessly, seeing myself in the people that I was ready to at any moments notice, blow to hell; I’ve been there plenty of times myself… Jumping on a charter bus and riding approximately 2, 200-miles into the unknown seemed by far the reasonable thing to do, walking it if I had to, anything for a chance at redemption.

With travel included, my operation took 7 days, with all the makings of a 7-month pump all rolled into a week, consisting of more than sufficient amounts of everyone’s favorite, “hurry up and wait” to go around! In military terms, it was a logistical nightmare with seriously delinquent command and control deficiencies, more than enough people have voiced their criticisms so I don’t see a point in following suit. For me, this adventure transcended those (very serious) hiccups, acquiring peace and healing somehow were my main objectives.

On December 4th, the same day the Army Corps of Engineers announced they would not grant an appeasement to the pipeline, our bus entered Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the three protector camps. Our group composed of veterans from Florida and Georgia, was mesmerized by the seemingly endless flags of various Native Tribes encircling the camp, it was awe-inspiring and we were warmly welcomed, several campers thanked us for coming and supporting their movement, we all celebrated the victory even though many believed it to be short lived. Oceti Sakowin was a magical place, inhabited by beautiful people who looked to preserve their culture and way of life. I was hugely impressed by the resiliency time and again I observed from Tribal members, the Post Traumatic Growth they seemed to radiate, I knew that they were in it for the duration, surrender was not an option, this was just the most recent battle in the centuries long war America has waged upon it’s original inhabitants.

They were countered by the large number of journalists who up until this point had been nonexistent, having seen little reason to shine light on what was taking place here; now where out in full force, eager to document our exploits and ensnare our pictures, somewhere between freedom of press and journalistic exploitation. It quickly became clear that our presence at camp, though very much appreciated was becoming a giant distraction and taking away from the overall effectiveness of the movement. Differing accounts place as many as 5,000 veterans as having embarked on the camp, without adequate lodging and supplies, the influx of population soon became a taxing burden. On the following day as inclement weather rapidly approached and engulfed us, a large mass of veterans led by Tribal Elders marched in solidarity on the bridge which had been the battleground between Water Protectors and law enforcement.

In sub-freezing temperatures, with wind-chill it was reported as being -20F, hundreds of veterans alongside of Indigenous peoples, a distinct percentage of who also proudly served in the military, stepped forward in a dynamic show of unity, peacefully advancing towards the blockade that had been until recently manned by police like a combat outpost; which on that day had not been the case. To the dismay of some, the crowd simply gathered and chanted, not looking to incite nor instigate instead of advancing and regaining lost grounds, which I had later learned that evening at the Sacred Fire, were burial grounds for Lakota warriors.

Freezing, I could not help but take in the impressive show of peace that was unfurling before me. This had been the largest gathering of veterans since the Vietnam War, and the purpose was protection, a worthy cause I was willing to sacrifice myself for had it come down to it. Fortunately, it did not and I am forever grateful to have lived history, it truly felt as though it was a historic moment. It was the first time that I had felt in (partial) uniform righteously proud of my actions; no longer was I a destroyer but now a preserver of people and our Sacred Grandmother Earth, connecting with my own native roots. I am forever thankful for those who I met on this trip and shared many great words and laughter with. A Lakota Chief summed it up perfectly; “Soldiers follow orders, warriors do what’s right”.

 

Seneko kakona (many blessings),

Hipolito Arriaga III,

the Beardman

 

 

To read more about the experience of me and my fellow veterans at standing rock click here: http://www.missioncontinuesblog.org/veterans-stand-for-standing-rock/

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