Wearing camouflage fatigues, John Boyd, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, tested a collection of two-way radios in a Citrus Heights garage. Earlier, he had packed a bulletproof vest and a gas mask.
Boyd and 14 other area veterans were preparing for a domestic mission: support the Native Americans who have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline that would travel from North Dakota oil fields to Illinois.
They were due to arrive in North Dakota by Saturday night as part of a group of an estimated 2,000 veterans who answered a call by Wesley Clark Jr., son of the four-star general and former presidential candidate with the same name.
Clark, a veteran and Los Angeles-based screenwriter, helped organize Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, which is coordinating the trip to North Dakota. While the group’s Facebook page says the veterans are going “in the spirit of peace and unity,” it also says they may face “fear, danger or adversity.” Veterans are scheduled to convene at noon Sunday, according to the page.
The Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters have for months protested the pipeline built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, saying a leak in the pipeline that travels near their reservation would poison their water. Conflicts with law enforcement have become violent at times.
While courts have allowed construction to continue, work has stalled as federal agencies re-evaluate permits near tribal lands.
Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners sued last month in an attempt to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to authorize construction. The pipeline backers said in a release that the “previous review process conducted by the Corps was extremely thorough and comprehensive” and blamed “political interference” for delaying work.
Robin Gage, a veteran of the California National Guard, organized veterans in California for caravans to North Dakota. She said the 223 veterans from California will make up the largest contingent of any state there.
Gage said it’s her heritage as part Choctaw Indian that persuaded her to get involved. “They’re not being heard,” she said of the protesters in North Dakota.
On Friday morning, Gage and other veterans were packing food, clothes and other gear as they prepared to depart from her Citrus Heights home. They plan to stay in North Dakota for five days before driving back home.
Gage and other participants say law enforcement officials have violated the free speech rights of protesters, and they plan to act as “human shields” to defend that right. Clark has said veterans will “stand in” for protesters who have been on the site for months.
Boyd said he feels a duty to help.
“I don’t believe it’s right to build a pipeline through Native American land and contaminate the Missouri River,” he said. “We will be a shield so they can pray and not be attacked.”
Stephen Moeller, another former Marine, said he looked forward to the camaraderie of working with other veterans on the trip. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “These people have been involved in peaceful protest. It blows my mind what has happened to them.”