In November, like many people, I watched a horrifying video of North Dakota Police backed by private mercenaries from Tiger Swan fire a water canon into a crowd of peaceful protestors, severely injuring several of them. It wasn’t the first moment that I had heard of the Water Protectors efforts against the Dakota Access Pipeline but it hit the hardest. I was a soldier. I served my country for five years and this… this offended me. And I wasn’t the only one. Veterans Stand for Standing Rock was started because of that video.
I joined early and offered my services to handle Intel, moving up until I was one of the National Leadership. I ran a team of fifteen people, half of which were women, to get the information we needed on weather, terrain, who we would be facing, and who we needed to talk to so we could make the biggest impact possible. Our Leadership contacted the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and we were invited to help.
Our GoFundMe raised over a million dollars and we used that money to transport veterans from all over the country to the Dakotas. Before I left, when my wife and I were packing the car to take me to my ride, our neighbor Monica, who is Native, came and thanked me for doing this. It surprised and touched me. One of my friends Barbara, who could not make it up there, offered blankets and other support.
When I reached Eagle Butte SD, where we were mustering, I got right to work. I interfaced with Jenn, a disabled Vet like me, and Sedef, who was handling our Social Network and Media Team. We welcomed busloads of people, getting them places to stay, fed, and ready to go the next day. If it weren’t for the women of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and especially Edna who runs the Bingo parlor, this would have been infinitely more difficult.
After a ritual run by Councilman Killsall that welcomed us to the tribe and helped us set our focus, the three of us rode together in a car to check on Veterans staying in several small communities on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. There was a lot of laughter and fun, because for two hours we were cut off from cell reception and this whole thing had to go on without us. It was the most relaxed I was the whole trip. We listened to music, enjoyed the scenery, and talked. Jenn and Sedef really helped to make the trip for me.
Our first stop was Cannonball, where a number of our vets were staying as well as members of my team. They were working on a data base to try and keep track of all the Vets who had arrived. What we thought would be our cap of 2000 Vets quickly turned into 4000+. Needless to say, we started moving towards fixing problems rather than being there in the moment because we had to. We had clearly underestimated how big an impact that video had on Veterans.
From there we drove to the Prairie Knights Casino, 7 miles from the bridge and Oceti Sakowin, the main camp where the seven sacred fires were. Once at the casino several things happened right on top of each other. First we connected with the other leadership so we could all be on the same page. Then Wes Clark Jr. gave his apology to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes for the actions taken by his old Calvary unit. That moment, as the culmination of a healing ritual for both sides, was incredibly moving and healing personally, especially when Leonard Crow Dog, one of the sacred leaders of the Sioux, yelled out “World Peace” and the whole crowd joining in. That moment was over whelming and thinking about it, I still get chills and my chest grows tight. Then a very short while later the easement being denied was announced.
Spirits rose so much then, with people laughing, crying, yelling happily, dancing, all the Water Protectors moved to tears. This was the answer to all their prayers. When I made it down to Oceti Sakowin that night, there was all that plus fireworks. It was absolutely magical despite the cold. I ended up walking around the camp with two female journalists from a Native American news group basking in the event. The day had been absolutely crazy.
Then the blizzard, which got us snowed in for several days. That was rough and I was one of the lucky ones stuck at the casino. What started as a movement to protect the Water Protectors from violence turned into making sure that people were safe and planning to get everyone home. People from our group helped make sure people were fed, had shelter, and if lost got found. Amazingly, no one died in the camps and casino despite conditions being ripe for that. Our people went above and beyond, helping where we could under the direction of the Tribal Leadership.
To keep people occupied, the tribes put on a Powwow in the casino. There was some incredible dancing and drumming. There was even a ritual that honored us as Sioux warriors, giving a good number of us Eagle feathers in recognition of this. It was powerful. Watching this wide range of cultures and people come together, the sheer intersectionality of over 500 tribes, tribal peoples from other countries, all races, all creeds, all genders, all sexualities, all religions, all politics was something that words fail at describing. I have never seen such a vast diversity united into a single purpose.
It was an amazing experience and very healing, especially for me. I had been hurt by the Army, badly. I am a fully disabled Vet dealing with chronic pain, a busted shoulder, chronic kidney stones, weekly migraines, as well as debilitating PTSD and depression. I did not enjoy my time in service. And yet, during the trip I began to feel a great deal of pride in being a Veteran. There were people who came up to me and thanked me for coming with the other Vets to help out, not just one or two but dozens. Again, just thinking about that brings me to tears.
Once the blizzard was over, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asked us to leave so we got people sent home. It was done and I was drained. The whole week had been nonstop. My legs hurt so badly from all the standing and walking around I did. It was also a high that lasted until the Inauguration. The leadership stayed in touch and we did an After Action Report where we talked about what went right, what went wrong, and lessons learned. Sure we made mistakes but we wanted to get better. That desire spurred most of us to stay together to fight the good fight and to continue helping where we could. Over the next several months these discussions gave birth to Veterans Service Corps.
VSC is a 501(c)3 non-profit group. Since leaving in December we have had people on the ground in North and South Dakota working, helping at the camps and working in Eagle Butte. It started as an attempt to give back to the people who were so essential to our success in December but then we stayed because we could see that we were helping and the Cheyenne River Sioux were happy to have us. Our most recent Operation, Op Eagle, involved working on the Veteran Center in Eagle Butte, refurbishing houses for Homeless Vets and a safe house for women, cleaning up local cemeteries since over 46% of the Tribe are Veterans. We added work on a Youth Center in Cherry Creek, to give those kids someplace to go. There were even donations of sporting goods so flag football and baseball could be played. The massive slip and slide in Cherry Creek the team put together was pretty amazing.
Our work is geared at continuing the healing that began for most of us in December. We are working to provide ex-Servicemen and women a chance to give back to their communities through various projects. Chapters are forming and we are building alliances with the Cheyenne River Sioux, Veterans for Peace, and other Vet organizations. Our group is taking the momentum started from a video of a water cannon and turning it into a force for change. Despite being a disabled Vet I feel like I am able to make a difference, to help others.
This whole thing has been an emotional rollercoaster. There have been a lot of growing pains. I have felt very frustrated because finances and health have kept me from going back to South Dakota to help out with Op Eagle. Other members used their own money, their own pensions to continue the mission. Right now, we are starting to see fundraising coming through that will allow us to keep going. This means a lot to me and I am so glad to see our organization hasn’t died like many other attempts at Non-Profits.
Wanting to help change the world is daunting. I know I joined so my service could be turned into a force for change. All the other board members are on that page as well. We want to make a difference, one community at a time. And what’s more, it makes me feel like I am fighting to help the country as a whole. My healing is continuing and I feel better about my time in service. That time was rough and hurt but it has given me the skills I can turn around and use for the good of others. It makes me feel like I am not just a Disabled Vet, that I can do something, that my voice has power.
The world seems to be going crazy right now and all anyone can do is to hold on to what we believe. I believe in this country, despite its many mistakes, because there are a lot of people who want to strive to make the world a better place. If nothing else, over four thousand Veterans, from across the country and political spectrum, came together to fight against excessive violence against peaceful Water Protectors simply using their right to make their voices heard and in doing so, became one of the most incredible experiences I have ever been a part of. If we could do that, we can do anything.
Heather O'Malley is a disabled Army Veteran who has worked with several different non-profits including Equality Now, Transgender American Veterans Association, and Veterans Service Corps. She is a published author, a happy Grandma, decent cook, and a terrible juggler. Her love of exploring has gotten her into trouble more than once.