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Keene man joins other vets at Standing Rock

Vietnam Veteran Tom Smith of Keene Valley took this photo of encampments at the site of the Standing Rock Pipeline Protests in Cannon Ball, North Dakota earlier this month. (Photo provided)

KEENE — On Dec. 4, Tom Smith stood in the auditorium of the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort in Fort Yates, North Dakota along with hundreds of other veterans of American wars.

They were 10 miles south of the pipeline protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball. The plan for the group, called “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock,” was for these thousands of vets, including Smith, to “deploy” to the frigid and windy front lines of Standing Rock that day to support the protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through peaceful activism.

“The plan was to break down into companies and platoons,” Smith said. “Our mission statement was we were going to cross the Missouri (River) if we could. We were going to basically try to push to the pipeline site as I understand it. To march with the water keepers toward the opposing forces, if it were.”

Smith, 69, had arrived here after a 25-hour drive in his Volkswagen camper from his summer home in Keene Valley. It’s at this site where groups such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have protested that the construction of the pipeline for the Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners violated laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act. Proponents of the 1,172-mile pipeline say it will enable oil to reach major refining markets in a more direct, cost-effective, safe and environmentally responsible manner.

But Smith and the other veterans in attendance were drawn together with a common goal of opposing its construction as well. They described their mission through the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock Facebook group as “defending America from enemies, foreign and domestic, by combating the oppression of our fellow human beings and working to create a better future through continued sacrifice and service.”

“Together we will have an impact on many plights across this nation through peaceful disruption, unified and practical support,” reads a message on the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock Facebook page. “We understand what it means to put your life on the line in the preservation of this country and its people. We signed an oath, and we stand ready to be at service.”

For Smith, a former helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, he said he showed up at Standing Rock because this was a new and different kind of a way for him to serve the people of his country. Smith said the group gained more than 2,000 veterans interested in going to Standing Rock within 10 days, forcing the group’s creators to have to close off sign-up for the list due to high interest.

Smith said he thinks the group is a resounding example of veterans across the country expressing interest in human rights issues important to them such as protecting land owner’s rights to clean water.

“I’d say there are probably tens of thousands of vets that are available to put our energy and efforts into a good cause like this,” Smith said. “We feel this is an opportunity to sign up for what we signed up to do (as military members) — to protect the people of this country, both foreign and domestic enemies. And we made no bones about it: we believed these interests were against civilian rights. It struck a nerve very quickly to get that many people to mobilize.

But Smith and the other veterans never carried out their deployment plan of peaceful activism on shores of the Missouri River on Dec. 4. That’s because as they made their final preparations that Sunday inside the auditorium of the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was temporarily halting construction of the controversial pipeline to await an environmental impact review of the project. The announcement came a day before the evacuation deadline set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Dakota governor’s office, which was to order protesters stationed at the site to leave the encampment Smith and the thousands of other veterans there vowed to protect the protestors, but their services weren’t needed.

In the end, Smith was hopeful that the presence of veterans at protests such as Standing Rock would help relations between contrasting interests and groups of people and said the group has interest in convening at a similar event in the future.

“Military training is very simple,” Smith said. “You have a mission, and there’s a best way to accomplish it. There’s a way to sustain it, an efficient way to function, and bringing that to these types of gatherings is very beneficial. It gives a sense of unity and purpose. And the opposition at Standing Rock, they are represented by police, local sheriffs up to the National Guard and the police forces of the pipeline companies. And it’s a very formidable group to be up against, so I think when we come in as vets we give it a different tone entirely. And i think that’s needed.”