This many people in this short a time made logistics a nightmare. The nightmare was only compounded by a blizzard that hit at about the same time as the veterans from all across the country.
To be fair, a great many really good things took place over the course of the week. I will only speak of my personal experience, my personal thoughts and opinions about this mission. As such, this writing should not be taken as representative of every vets experience out there. I'm certain that some had better experiences than me, and some had much more miserable experiences than me.
This is my story.
It started a few weeks prior to December 3rd, when I woke up feeling a deep pull inside of me that I really should go back to Standing Rock. VSSR had put out a call for vets and medics. I've been both in previous lives. A Marine from 1990-1999 and a medic from 2002-2012. I had been following the happenings at Standing Rock since before my first visit in August. I had made friends out there and followed along as they went on marches and struggled with supplies, the "authorities" and sometimes each other.
So I talked with my wife about my urge to go back yet again. We talked about time and financial commitment. Timing turned out to work pretty well. Karen had days off on the days of the deployment, and other commitments were not time sensitive. But the financial aspect was tough.
While VSSR dangled the prospect of being reimbursed out as a carrot, neither of us wanted to rely on that. So we dipped into our savings again this time not for donations to the camp, but to outfit me for an extreme cold weather excursion. Our summer sleeping bags and tents just wouldn't do. Nor would my ten year old "winter" boots that had cracks in them and let my feet get wet when I shoveled our driveway. I can tolerate cold, wet feet for a little while, but this mission could mean standing out in the snow for hours. So I needed gear. Good gear. Boots, -20 degree sleeping bag, wool hunting socks, hats, gloves, mittens, the whole nine. I even bought a new coat.
"But John, Don't you live in Minnesota? Shouldn't you HAVE a lot of this cold weather gear, including a COAT!"
Why, yes... Yes I do live in Minnesota. Yes I do have lots of cold weather gear. But for this mission, anything I wore to the front line needed to be gear I was willing to get hosed, shot, or gassed. The gear needed to be expendable, and I really like my nice, warm Columbia winter coat. While it would be perfect for non-confrontational jobs, I didn't want to get it destroyed on the front lines. I also wanted to have backup gear in case one set got destroyed so I wouldn't be coatless or gloveless or hatless. So, yeah. Redundancy was key in preparing for the mission. I went with four coats, four hats, five pair of gloves, multiple neck coverings, etc. etc.
On top of the cold weather gear, there was the additional expenses of things I never thought I'd be buying. Gas masks and body armor. Knee pads and a top of the line nut cup that could take the hardest hockey slap shot. There are parts of my body that I am just not wanting to get hit by those 40mm "less than lethal" rounds. I wanted PROTECTION. I could have bought a $10 Russian surplus gas mask at the local military surplus store, but if I was going as a medic, I really wanted something reliable that I could actually SEE out of. No sense in going just to become a casualty myself. I was about to drop over $200 on a mask, but someone on some thread had mentioned that he got his for much less on E-Bay. I lucked out and got a better mask than I had originally intended for just under $100.
Then came medical supplies. It turns out that when you haven't been a paramedic for a few years, you tend to get rid of all of those "medic" type things you always took for granted. So I once again hit the wide world of internet shops, and bought enough trauma supplies to outfit not only my old Zumbrota medic bag, but a military medic bag that I bought to take to the front lines. (Expendable)
I promised my wife that I would stay as close to a $200 budget as I could and still get only NEEDED supplies. I was only off by about $800.
The good news is that I have very supportive friends that donated another couple hundred dollars worth of medical supplies and almost $300 cash to help offset my expenditures.
With everything packed and ready to go, I decided to leave early on Saturday morning. VSSR had announced that we would all be rallying in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, AND that we would be welcome to attend a meeting in Standing Rock Saturday evening to hear from the elders and leaders from Standing Rock. The two locations were about two hours apart, so I decided to head to Standing Rock for the meeting, and then go to Eagle Butte after.
The drive out was pretty uneventful. Ten hours of driving in clear weather, keeping myself entertained with NPR or singing along with CD's or just singing. I mentally went through all of my gear a dozen more times. You know. The usual.
When I got to Standing Rock, I looked at the VSSR Facebook page to see where the meeting was to take place. Apparently I was looking for the Science and Technology building on the Sitting Bull College Campus.
Well, I drove around the campus a few times, and could not find a Science and Technology building. I pulled over on a campus road to check the interweb and see if I could find it on a map, but was having no luck. It was then that a car with Canadian plates pulled up next to me and asked if I knew where the meeting was. After some discussion, he said that he was going to check out a building a few blocks away that had people standing out in front of it. I decided to just follow him.
Turns out, that building WAS where the meeting would be. The sign on the building said "Trade Building". Upon entering, I found a little office space attached to a sizable garage. This was a trade school building, and there were various work stations around the perimeter for saws, building supplies and what looked like a cutaway partial house showing the various layers of construction.
I had arrived just as two native women were calling for everyone to form up. I was there an hour and a half before the meeting was scheduled to begin, but form up we did...sort of.
This was a group of about a hundred veterans of all ages. So the formation was pretty loose, lots of gaps, and made up of five or six squads instead of the usual four. The women introduced themselves. They were the two chosen to take command from Wes Clark jr. and Michael Wood, the original organizers of the VSSR movement. I thought it was great that the white guys had chosen to step aside and let native veterans lead this mission. Not only was the whole pipeline protest native led, but these two would have a much better understanding of the culture as well.
They thanked us for coming, and spoke of a change in mission. Originally, the plan was for the veterans to come and stand between the water protectors and the "authorities". The mission briefing stated that if we saw an opportunity to move forward and take the drill pad, we would exploit that and push the "authorities" and DAPL away from the camp.
But after speaking with the elders and leaders, the mission was changing into one of peace and prayer. We were told that our job would be to support the water protectors around camp. Do what we could to help winterize, and protect the camp in case of a DAPL/MCSD raid on the camp. We were ordered to take no direct action, and if we didn't think we could follow those orders, we were free to go home.
Then we took a break while we waited for the elders and leaders to arrive. I heard lots of grumbling about the change in mission. Heard lots of vets saying that's not what they came for. But I kept quiet, listening, observing.
Pretty soon the elders and leaders arrived, and we formed up again (sorta). We heard from Chairman Dave Archambault, the leader of the Standing Rock tribe, who told us the same thing as we had heard before. We heard inspirational stories from Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota elder. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard spoke for a bit and thanked us for coming.
It was a long meeting, and we had been standing for the entirety of it. After a long driving day, I was ready to hear more about where we'd be sleeping and what the plan of the day for tomorrow would be. At one point, I saw actress Shailene Woodly walk in and out.
Weird, I thought. But nice that she's here to raise awareness. If only more people in the limelight would do that, maybe we'd be less focused on the trivial.
It was as I was thinking what a strange experience this was that a guy in a puffy winter coat walked in. He looked shockingly familiar, and I eyed him as he walked past, pulling his green and black trucker hat over his eyes to avoid making a scene.
Had I served with him? I had a feeling of being pals, and of dread at the same time. Suddenly it hit me...
It was Duke, from the TV show 'Haven'. Now, for those of you that don't know the show, it's about a town where 'troubles' affect people giving them strange powers, bad things happen, yada yada. Duke, throughout the series is a good bad guy, or sometimes a bad good guy, or sometimes just a good guy, or sometimes just a bad guy, which explained the feeling of dread when he walked in. He's also the most 'real' character on the show, to me anyway. You know how sometimes when you watch a series that goes for several years, you sometimes think to yourself that if you were in that world, you'd probably hang with so and so a character... Yeah, Duke is one of those characters for me.
So, it went from a strange experience, to being rather surreal. I was tired, hungry, amped up for a combat mission only to be told it would be a peacekeeping mission - if that, and in walks my old pal Duke... or a guy named Eric Balfour that I have never met.
The meeting ended in a Lakota prayer, and people started drifting in and out, talking, planning, etc.
I decided to go over and just verify that it was, in fact, Eric Balfour, or if it was just someone who looked an awful lot like him. So I walked closer to him and said "Hey, Eric!"
He turned to me and said "Yes sir?"
And that started a pretty good conversation. I told him I was a fan of Haven, and his character in particular. How watching the show had been an 'escape' for me when my PTSD got triggered, and how shows like his helped keep me from spiraling further down when those things hit me. We talked about our families and what had brought us both to Standing Rock. Which led to more talk about 'Haven', and how in real life, lots of people have "powers" or talents that they don't know they have until they are tested, and that we both expected that many people out here were finally waking up to what is going on in the world and that things need to be done about it.
It was a fun conversation. I was just tired enough not to be all flighty and fan-ish, and just talk like a normal (if tired) human being. At one point another gal came up to him, interrupted our conversation and said "You look really familiar" through squinted eyes and a confused face that said 'I should know you, but how?'
He looked back at her with the same expression and after a moment said "Yeah... I think we went to high school together!?!"
Which left her even more confused, and she walked away without ever knowing how she knew him. It was pretty funny, but the more I thought about it later, I was impressed that he didn't brag or announce his presence. Even when he came in, he walked around the back and stayed in the shadows, kept his hat low...discreet. He gets it. How to be humble. And in his humility, he demonstrates his stature.
As we talked, we found ourselves in close proximity to Tulsi Gabbard. Now, not only is she a Congresswoman, but she's very pretty and outranks me by just a whole lot. So I was a little nervous to just go introduce myself. Apparently this showed, because Eric (yeah, I call him Eric now) piped up and said "You should go say hello!"
"Oh, I will." I said. "I don't want to interrupt the others talking with her."
"C'mon" he replied, "I'll introduce you."
"No. Really." I said. "I will!"
So we continued with our conversation. He introduced me to the group he had come out with, filmmakers and producers and others whose names I promptly forgot.
They were going to head out to find some real food, as they had been there for a few days and had been living on protein bars. So we said our goodbyes, see you at camp, etc. As they were leaving, I turned quick and asked if I could get a picture with him, as the day had been surreal and I wanted proof that I had actually met him! He was very gracious and agreed.
After that, I headed over to loiter around Ms. Gabbard until I found an opening to introduce myself. We had a MUCH shorter chat. I told her that if she ran for POTUS in 2020, she'd have my vote. Asked her about her thoughts on the change of mission, and got a quick picture with her as well. I would love to be important enough to sit down with these folks and have an in depth talk about the issues sometime. She had good insights that I would have liked to hear more about.
Anyway, as the night grew later, the organizers spread the word that about 50 of us could sleep in this building tonight. It seemed like a good idea to me, as driving another two hours down to Eagle Butte while I was tired didn't seem like my best option. So I signed up to stay with about 20-25 others, and soon things were quieting down as we settled in.
I ran into Eric and crew one more time as I was loading my gear into the building. He asked if I was staying there tonight, to which I said yes, and asked if I had everything I needed. For a brief moment, I considered asking if I could join them for dinner since I knew no one at the building and only had jerky to dine on that night. But I didn't want to intrude, and I knew that he'd say yes because he's a genuine good guy (because that's the impression I got of him in our twenty minute conversation), and that it would be a late night of talking. And while it would have been REALLY COOL, it was not why I had come out there. I knew tomorrow had the potential to be another long day, and I wanted to get all the sleep I could before heading into unknown territory. So I told him I was good to go, and it had been really fun meeting him and talking to him. He said the honor was his, and his group departed.
I got to know a few of the others staying in the building. There were a couple of medics, but mostly just tired vets ready to sleep. Someone had brought a couple boxes of MRE's, and after I was satisfied that everyone had food that wanted it, I grabbed a ravioli MRE and ate it cold before turning in for the night. It was nearing midnight when I finally drifted off to sleep. I was thinking that I'd get a good five or six hours of sleep, and that would have to be enough for the following day's festivities.
Turns out... I was wrong... about many things.