Prove your humanity

As the conflict at Standing Rock intensifies, military veterans are travelling to North Dakota to help protect protesters. Iraq War veteran Helen Gerhardt plans to be among them.

Since April, the Standing Rock Sioux—along with thousands of Native American activists and other allies—have been camped out on tribal land in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline will carry fracked oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to Illinois. The protesters say the route, which crosses under the Missouri River and a lake near the Standing Rock reservation, will jeopardize clean water for the tribe and others, and that construction has already desecrated burial sites and other sacred land.

The company that owns the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, says the pipeline is a safer and more direct way to transport the crude to processing plants than by train. The Obama administration put a hold on the final permit to build this segment of the pipeline until there’s more information about its impacts. But the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the land, says it’s closing down the camp on December 5. They’ve ordered the indigenous protesters, called the Water Protectors, and others to leave by that date.

Harsh wintry conditions and reports of intimidation by authorities, including the use water cannons and a blockade of supplies, have prompted military veterans from across the country to head to Standing Rock this weekend to stand with the protesters. Pittsburgh’s Helen Gerhardt plans to be among them. She’s a veteran who served with the Missouri Army National Guard in the Iraq War, and she’s a grassroots organizer and activist. She’s packing up her car with supplies, like subzero sleeping bags and gas masks, and driving the almost 1,400 miles to lend her support to the protesters. Allegheny Front host Kara Holsopple got a chance to talk with Gerhardt before she left. Here are some highlights from the interview.

Listen to the audio for this interview

Kara Holsopple: How did this trip come about? What made you decide to go?

Helen Gerhardt: Well, I had been sharing the news about this veterans’ action on Facebook. And it felt like it was time to put my own body in alignment with my beliefs. I’m a veteran of the Iraq War. I delivered supplies to military camps all across Iraq. And many times, our convoys would be following all these oil extraction convoys. They were extracting the oil wealth of Iraq. There were so many private companies making profits off the country in numerous ways. And so it feels very fitting that I would now deliver supplies to a camp that is resisting the continuance of a whole energy system that’s wrecking our planet. Through this whole garbage fire of an election, climate change was barely talked about. And it is the crisis of our time. And the Water Protectors are bringing the attention of the entire world to that crisis. And so I want to do everything I can to help support them.

KH: Many veterans across the country are heading to Standing Rock this weekend to provide some sort of protection for the protesters there. What will you do when you arrive?

HG: I am going to talk with people who I know well, good friends whose judgement I trust. I want to talk with the indigenous leaders, with the Water Protectors themselves. I want to be fully assured by them that this action is in accord with their own concerns, tactics and strategies. And if so, then I will take part with the veterans’ action. If not, I will try to observe, witness, write and record stories. I just want to make sure there is real respect for the careful planning and thoughtful training in civil disobedience that has characterized the actions of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

KH: The police presence at the camp has been described as militarized. Water cannons and dogs have been used on protesters there. As a veteran, does that have special significance for you?

GH: Absolutely. When I was in the National Guard, we were actually trained in crowd control methods. And over the past years, the restrictions and the safeguards on such use of force have really gone down. Our various military forces, our police forces and private security forces have become increasingly brutal in their use of force.

KH: Are you afraid for your own safety?

GH: Oh yeah. I’m afraid. But you know, it’s a different kind of fear than I felt in Iraq. The time I was most afraid was when the news about Abu Ghraib hit the airwaves. I was there in 2004.

KH: Abu Ghraib is the military prison in Iraq where there was shown to be torture of the Iraqi prisoners.

GH: Yes, and up until then, I really had not felt much fear. But when I drove out of the camp that day, nobody would even look at us. The kids that used to run towards the truck for candy or for food that we would throw out the windows would not even look at us. And so that’s such a different kind of fear than putting yourself on the line for causes that you care about—when you’re trying to be responsible to your communities and to the larger global community that we’re a part of.

KH: Are there connections for you between the conflict at Standing Rock and issues around pipelines and safety here in Pennsylvania?

GH: I’ve been very impressed by the ways the Water Protectors have highlighted just how many spills there have been—how waterways have been polluted that affect enormous watersheds. The Water Protectors are saying this is not just simply about protecting our rights over our indigenous land. They’re saying this water goes out into so many different communities, and we’re standing up for them as well.


Interested in reading more about how new pipelines are impacting life here in Pennsylvania? Check out our Follow the Pipeline series.