North Dakota pipeline protest garners support from U.S. veterans

A long-running pipeline protest in North Dakota is seeing a spike in support from U.S. veterans, who are travelling to the remote camp. Matthew Crane — a navy veteran who says he's willing to "act as a barrier" between protesters and police if needed — is one of them.

'I bled in Iraq and you're going to threaten to shoot me on a bridge in North Dakota?'

Veterans have a demonstration on Backwater bridge during a protest near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

American veteran Matthew Crane has been to Iraq and Kuwait, and has led disaster relief teams in the U.S. Now he says he's found a new mission at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota, supporting those opposing the Dakota Access pipeline.

The 32-year-old navy veteran is one of a growing number of ex-military members heading to the centre of the pipeline fight as part of a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.

Last week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Oceti Sakowin Camp land, told people who had gathered on the land they had to leave by Dec. 5. 

But state officials have since said they won't enforce the order and more people are arriving, despite frigid temperatures, snow and mounting uncertainty about what will happen at the site.

For his part, Crane says he is willing to be a human shield between local law enforcement — which he describes as a "domestic enemy" — and those who have congregated at the site to oppose the pipeline.

"They're not protesting, they're praying," he said. "We're going to act as a barrier."

Veteran Matthew Crane says soldiers like him have skills and training that could be useful in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

The 1,885-kilometre pipeline project, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is mostly complete, except for a segment planned to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River.

'This is what I need to be doing'

Veterans here say there are a number of reasons drawing them in, including standing up for Indigenous people, environmentalism and even seeing an opportunity to put specialized survival skills to use.

Brandee Paisano, for one, chokes up when she describes why she is here. She's an Indigenous U.S. navy veteran from the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, who was raised by a single father who did two tours in Vietnam.

"I signed up to serve my country and my people and I did that overseas," she said. "I didn't think I'd have to do it here, on this land, so here I am. This is what I need to be doing."

Those who oppose the pipeline say it could threaten drinking water and harm sacred sites. Others say it is a safer way to move crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

Veteran Brandee Paisano says she has an eight-year-old son and part of the reason she is at the Oceti Sakowin Camp is to make him proud. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Mark Sanderson, a former special forces soldier from Texas, sees the task here as being similar to a peacekeeping mission but on home soil.

He's hoping to make law enforcement question some of their tactics in dealing with the protesters.

"I bled in Iraq and you're going to threaten to shoot me on a bridge in North Dakota?"

N.D. veterans urged to stay home 

Still, support is not universal among veterans.

The North Dakota Veterans Co-ordinating Council, which unites a number of veterans' organizations in the state, said Thursday veterans should stay home, as they plan to do.

"If they come, they will be respectful," warned Russ Stabler. "If not, we want it understood, these are not North Dakota veterans and they do not represent the veterans of North Dakota. And we are encouraging all of our people not to go out there."

Yesterday, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier told CBC News the veterans' movement does not make sense.

"That's not going to prove anything and it's not going to fix anything, he said.

Kirchmeier also expressed concern that veterans could bring with them an element of violence.

"The moment we commit violence, the moment we throw rocks, the moment we throw bottles, the moment we throw anything, we lose our mission, we've lost," said Sanderson, the former special forces soldier from Texas.

Paisano said she believed perhaps the veterans could even potentially be a mechanism for people here to find common ground with law enforcement.

"We probably served together, you know?"

The state governor cited weather concerns as a reason for the eviction notice. The Oceti Sakowin Camp replied that they intended to stay, saying 'the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people of The Great Sioux Nation have survived in this region for millennia without the concerns of state or county governments.' (Stephanie Keith/Reuters )

With files from CBC's Karen Pauls and Reuters