“I thought my days in uniform were over,” says Erick Marroquin, a veteran who served with a Marine Combat Unit out of Camp Pendleton, California, and over the course of his military career was deployed to Ramadi and Fallujah. Now he plans to put on the jacket once again, displaying medals he earned in combat as he joins thousands of U.S. veterans who are traveling to North Dakota this weekend to stand beside Native Americans protesting the construction of a pipeline that threatens to pollute their land and water.
The group of 2,000 are already beginning to arrive and join the ranks of protestors, some of whom have been engaged in a tense standoff with police for months. For many of the protestors, the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile long pipeline, being built by Energy Transfer Partners LP, not only poses an ecological threat, but an unlawful desecration of land belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (it should be noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and lower courts disagree). The veterans plan to give those protestors a break by strengthening their numbers and hopefully bringing more attention to the issue. For Marroquin, this stand is an opportunity to voice his concern for the alliance between bullying corporate entities and government officials who allow them to operate without rein. For other veterans like Alex Heaton, a Marine out of Washington, D.C., the biggest offense has been the use of militarized police tactics on the protestors. “I ask myself, ‘Why is there an MRAP vehicle driving through a crowd of unarmed civilians?’ ” says Heaton. “This isn’t Ramadi.”
"I look at this as an issue with the whole American political system. Oil companies are trying to build infrastructure for the next 40 years. They want to keep things at a status quo, and continue to sell oil."
When did you decide to go to Standing Rock?
Heaton: I’ve been following the story for a while. I was alarmed from the beginning, but when I saw the use of dogs on people, that got me. I started to see the militarization and hyper-aggressive tactics being used against citizens. It is shocking to see gear that we wore in combat zones. They are treating these people like enemy combatants. Then I saw them getting blasted by water cannons in these freezing temperatures, and that women who was hit with a concussion grenade. If these engagements were happening somewhere else, it could be considered lethal force, which does not seem like an appropriate measure. This should not be given a pass.
Marroquin: I agree with the points that Alex makes. This is a consequence of the system of oppression that we’ve built in this country. I look at this as an issue with the whole American political system. If you really look at the reasons for why this is happening, it is because the oil companies are trying to build infrastructure for the next 40 years. They want to keep things at a status quo, and continue to sell oil. Their interest is in holding this country back from using renewable energy, like solar or wind. I am looking at this as a battle of a bigger war. For me this is just the beginning, but this is where people can start to choose where we want to stand on the side of history. I took an oath to protect this country, and I feel compelled to continue that oath and defend the constitution.
How did this group come together?
Heaton: It started as part of the larger movement. People wanted to help in some way. I wanted to help. Then the command started to form naturally, from Wes Clark Jr. and Michael Wood Jr., and they began to set up regions, where people could communicate with others in their parts of the country. Through those Facebook groups and phone calls we started to form an organized system naturally because of our familiarity with leadership and organization. We all speak the same language.
"It is heartbreaking that this trip has to happen. When you go overseas you are told that you are going into a hostile environment and you treat it as such. Now we have a police culture that treats civilians almost in that same manner."
How do you think the cause benefits from having a group of organized, trained former military going out there?
Heaton: We are not going out there as individuals. We are going out there as an organized squad. We have a task that we are looking to accomplish. There is an organization that we’ve created to help us complete this task, so if someone drops out or has to leave, someone else will be stepping into his or her place. We will always be at least 2,000 strong.
Marroquin: The majority of us have been there and done that in the terms of living rough to achieve a goal. Overseas you learn to adapt to a number of situations. The environment can change very quickly. I know that I’m going out there with people who have been through similar situations, and have gone through similar training. I trust their training and our ability to work together. This is just another mission for us, but it is just unfortunate that we have to do it here on our own soil.
What are you planning on taking out there?
Heaton: There has been a lot of communication about supply. It looks like it is going to be freezing, with the average temperatures being in the high 20s. The rule is to bring your own. Bring as much as you can. Then we will be looking for donations and loans of gear to fill in the holes. I am originally from the Midwest, so I know what that cold can be like. I’ll be going in hoodie, long pants, and my Carhartt because it is going to be plenty cold.
People have been getting hit with water cannons and rubber bullets, how are you preparing for that?
Heaton: I am bringing some protective gear that will protect my eyes, because a woman has been shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. There is nothing you can really do about having a grenade chucked at your shoulder, but I should have enough cold-weather gear that will have me fairly padded up. I’m not hoping to get hit by rubber bullets, of course, but I’m doing the best to prepare for if it if I do. I think number one we’re all hoping that these police follow their own rules of engagement.
Marroquin: Obviously we want to make sure everyone knows we will not be taking in any weapons. We are going in as peaceful protestors. There will be symbols of our crew. The order from command is not to wear our full uniform, but you can wear parts of it.
How are your family and friends reacting to your decision to go to Standing Rock?
Heaton: They are primarily concerned about the arrests that are happening out there. It has been happening a lot. I’m glad they’ve been raising funds to bail people out, but these court cases can drag on long after the issue is concluded. The criminal justice system is not going to let you go. You’re going to set bells off every time you go through an airport.
Marroquin: My family has been very supportive, as well as my friends. They’ve been sending texts and calls to support my decision to go. I think many people are fed up with the situation, and appreciate the people who are able to take action.
How does it feel to have to take an action like this stateside?
Heaton: It is heartbreaking that this trip has to happen. When you go overseas you are told that you are going into a hostile environment and you treat it as such. Now since 9/11 we have a police culture that treats civilians almost in that same manner. Their armaments have increased as well as the dehumanization of people who don’t fall in line. Terms like thugs or illegals are used to strip people of their value as humans. It is shockingly similar to the way that you are mentally conditioned to separate yourself from the populace when you are overseas. You join the armed forces for a multitude of reasons. You are committed mostly to the people that you have been deployed with. In this case, I don’t know the people that I’m going out there with, but it is the cause that we are committed to and bonded through. We are not seeking conflict. We are seeking peace.
Marroquin: I feel very good about this mission. I have no fear. There is always the possibility that something can go wrong, but we are prepared. There are contingency plans in place. I think as long as we all stay committed, we will be successful.
“Veterans For Standing Rock” have set up a GoFundMe page here mainly for the purpose of transport and bail for arrested members of the group.