The ground troops populating the latest left-wing protest movements? Some of them are actually former ground troops.
Groups of post-9/11 veterans, fueled by crowdfunding, disability checks and a thirst for purpose and adventure, are joining demonstrations everywhere from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., throwing another wild card into the increasingly volatile political battlefield.
Nowhere have the protest vets been more visible than at the Dakota Access pipeline camps, where groups are redeploying for another tour after as many as 4,500 arrived en masse in December in a show of support for the Standing Rock Sioux.
Mark Sanderson, who runs VeteransRespond, has a team of about two dozen on the ground at the Sacred Stone Camp. His group also participated in the Women’s March on Washington, and he’s looking into sending veterans to provide water filters for Flint, Michigan.
“The veteran community is hurting. A lot of them don’t have full-time jobs,” said Mr. Sanderson, 32, a former Army infantryman who said he earned a Purple Heart after being shot and suffering a traumatic brain injury. “We’re just giving veterans a purpose.”
Mr. Sanderson described his mission as humanitarian. His team is helping with the garbage cleanup and exploring ways to create less trash at camp. As a result of his injuries, he receives Veterans Administration benefits and works as a stay-at-home dad, but organizing VeteransRespond gives him a calling.
He’s not alone.
“My national team lead, he was working at PetCo, you know?” said Mr. Sanderson. “And now this guy is helping to feed 30 to 40 veterans and countless citizens of the country. It’s just a mission to continue service to those we signed up to serve.”
Kevin Basl of Iraq Veterans Against the War has a similar story.
“Like many post-9/11 veterans, I left the military seeking redemption. Perhaps that’s why, after I saw those images of police violence against water protectors, I went to Standing Rock,” he said in a Dec. 28 op-ed in Common Dreams.
Even so, it’s not hard to understand why the locals may be less than enthused about the arrival of hundreds of mostly young men with military training who may not have steady jobs or stable living situations.
Veterans Stand, which organized the mass December protest, is mobilizing for “Standing Rock II” in response to President Trump’s order expediting the pipeline’s approval.
The group has raised $261,000 on GoFundMe in 10 days in order to send more resources to the area after collecting $1.15 million in December.
Last week South Dakota police arrested two men affiliated with a veterans’ group on their way to the camps after finding drugs in their car. A third man, VeteransRespond co-founder Matthew Crane, was cited by Morton County deputies in a separate stop for marijuana possession.
Mr. Sanderson was irked by a Morton County press release identifying the other two men as members of VeteransRespond. He said they’re not. He also said Mr. Crane’s marijuana was medicinal and legal where it was obtained, even though it’s illegal in North Dakota.
“We’re pretty confused as to why we’re getting attacked and targeted, because we’re just on a humanitarian aid mission,” Mr. Sanderson said. “We don’t advocate direct-action protest and, in fact, we discourage it. We’re not the enemy here.”
Not all veterans are on the same page when it comes to direct action. Veterans Stand came under criticism last year for an “operations order” that identified law enforcement as the “enemy” and called for rushing the pipeline drilling pad located on private property, “which we will surround arm in arm.”
Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the visibility of veterans at such left-of-center protests is somewhat misleading given that exit polls show voters with military experience voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
“This is a way for Democrats to say, ‘Look, we’re veterans too,’” said Mr. Pregent, who heads Veterans Against the Iran Deal.
Out of 21.2 million veterans, about 2.6 million fought in the post-9/11 war. The younger vets also have higher unemployment rates than older veterans and nonveterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s easy to get a person who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to feel like they’re part of something,” Mr. Pregent said. “You can inflate their sense of self by saying, ‘Hey, come do this. It’s important, and you’re actually making a difference.’”
So why aren’t veterans as visible at right-of-center protests? One reason: The left is where the action is.
With the notable exception of the pro-life movement, which draws hundreds of thousands to its annual March for Life and other events, most conservatives aren’t in the protest business.
“The left is very good at mobilizing protests and counterprotests,” Mr. Pregent said.
“We haven’t had a lot of olive branches from the right,” he said. “As an organization, we would love to help anywhere and everywhere we can. It just so happens that this is a community that’s in need right now, and they’re the ones that reached out to us and we had relationships with.”
And just because veterans turn up at protests like Standing Rock doesn’t necessarily mean they have a consistently liberal worldview. Mr. Trump backs the Dakota Access pipeline, but some of the veterans who showed up at the December event were actually fans of the billionaire real estate mogul.
“On that note, there were conservatives there. There were Trump supporters there,” Mr. Sanderson said. “We don’t make it about party lines.”
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