On the morning of Dec. 5, Wesley Clark Jr., the leader of a loosely formed protest group, Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, woke up to the buzz of his cell phone in a hotel room in the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It was 6:30 a.m. The caller had some troubling news. Just before dawn, one of the veterans down in the protest camp, where members of the group had bedded down for the night, had apparently disappeared. He was last seen walking in the direction of the Missouri River. There was a suicide note.

“So we do have his name, social security number, and emergency contact info?” Clark said into the phone, his voice hoarse after just a few hours of sleep. The 47-year-old former Army lieutenant was sitting on the edge of the bed now, scribbling notes on a loose sheet of paper. “We definitely need to do a search. We need to alert law enforcement on the reservation. I’ll call the sheriff and get back to you immediately.”  

It was imperative that I kept the room number a secret. There were people out there who wanted him dead.

Clark had been kind enough to let me crash on the floor of the hotel room, though he’d warned me I’d be doing so at my own risk. It was imperative that I kept the room number a secret. There were people out there who wanted him dead. Going to the camp to assist with the search effort was not an option. It was too dangerous. The previous day, a member of the Sioux tribe, Clark said, had whispered a message in his ear. You’ve pissed off the wrong people, the person told him. Run.

In the hotel room, Clark hung up the phone and sighed. A search party had been dispatched. What else was there to do? One of his assistants, Sean, a wire-thin Navy veteran with a Lenin-esque red beard, who had taken a few days off his job at a pizza joint in San Diego to help Clark run the command-and-control center for the Standing Rock mission, offered some reassuring words. “All we can do is let him know that he’s wanted and loved,” he said of the missing veteran. Then he said it a few more times.

Wesley Clark drives to the Standing rock camp, Dec. 4, 2016.Task & Purpose photo
Wesley Clark drives to the Standing rock camp, Dec. 4, 2016.

Clark made a few more phone calls, alerting other members of his team to the possible suicide. From the closet, he pulled the jacket of an old Army dress uniform, like the one he wore as a cavalry lieutenant back in the mid-90s. He had brought his ceremonial Stetson, too. The day before, Clark had received word that he and the approximately 4,000 veterans who had joined him in his bold effort to prevent construction on the Dakota Access pipeline — to “kill the black snake” as the Sioux called it — had been successful. He hadn’t even had to charge a police barricade, much less get pepper-sprayed in the face or take a bullet.

Now, there was only one thing left for him to do before he left the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation: formally apologize to the Sioux tribe for the atrocities they had suffered at the hands of the U.S. military since the mid-19th century. He’d be doing so on behalf of the entire veteran community, and the world would be watching.  

The arrival of thousands of veterans at this bleak, frozen stretch of south-central North Dakota represented, by most mainstream accounts, the deciding factor in a long and sometimes bloody fight, waged with rocks, water cannons, rubber bullets, prayers, dances and ruthless propaganda campaigns. Behind the scenes, however, the mission was hardly the organized military operation its founders promised. In fact, many participants say they were left to fend for themselves on the frozen banks of the Missouri while Clark and his fellow organizers — the men and women who were supposed to be leading the mission — hung back and basked in the media attention that it drew.

A potent new political force had emerged as if out of nowhere: veterans mobilizing en masse to draw national attention to the failings of the government they once served.

The recriminations are still being voiced on social media, where they have drawn patient explanations by Clark’s comrade-in-arms Michael A. Wood Jr., a 36-year-old former Baltimore police sergeant who served in the Marine Corps from 19972001, as well as a number of somewhat cryptic and deeply spiritual replies by Clark, who has since resigned from the group to start another organization called the 27th Cavalry.

All of which leaves a key question unanswered: Why did so many veterans go to Standing Rock in the first place?

Clark can at least take credit for enticing them there. In the weeks leading up to the mission, on social media and in interviews, he appealed to the veteran community with the bellicose rhetoric of a battlefield commander. The plan: A three-day deployment to “prevent progress on the Dakota Access pipeline and draw national attention to the human rights warriors of the Sioux tribes.” The Dakota Access pipeline, he said, was as an existential threat to national security, and, in a widely read interview with Task & Purpose, he predicted that the arrival of thousands of veterans to Standing Rock would be “the most important event up to this time in human history.”     

For many veterans I spoke to, Clark’s unwavering faith in the righteousness of his cause and his fierce rhetoric were inspiring. His forceful language seemed to cut through both the corporate PR spin and the lefty diatribes that had defined the issue for many observers. Here was a guy who knew what he thought and was willing to back up his words. “First Americans have served in the United States Military, defending the soil of our homelands, at a greater percentage than any other group of Americans,” he wrote in a document, formatted like a military operations order, that began circulating on the internet in early November. “There is no other people more deserving of veteran support and this situation encapsulates whether we are called heroes for violence and cashing paychecks or for justice and morality.”

Shield-carrying veterans listen as they show respect to a Vietnam veteran speaking. He was asking them to drop their shields, which were viewed as aggressive.Photo by David Gutierrez
Shield-carrying veterans listen as they show respect to a Vietnam veteran speaking. He was asking them to drop their shields, which were viewed as aggressive.

And then, on Dec. 4, nearly the moment the veterans began arriving on the ground — ready, as the op order stated, to “put [their] bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost” — and with a slew of reporters in tow, the standoff was over. But despite a somewhat anticlimactic resolution, the event pointed to something larger than than the location of a pipeline. A potent new political force had emerged as if out of nowhere: veterans mobilizing en masse to draw national attention to the failings of the government they once served.

Now, as Clark and his fellow organizers face accusations of negligence, incompetence, and even fraud, the question for many of the men and women who heeded his call is just how to move forward from here.

The two-lane highway that cuts through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is flanked by steep ravines, which, in early December, were filled with snow and wrecked cars.

This place has never been particularly accessible to outsiders, especially when they came bearing weapons or drills. Some 430 miles to the west, 140 years ago, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment suffered a gruesome defeat at the hands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors near the Little Bighorn River. The event was swiftly followed by the start of a series of government-sponsored land grabs, which ultimately left the Great Sioux Nation with the relatively small patch of land it occupies today. So the irony was not lost on the people of Standing Rock when, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Corps of Engineers declared its intention to shut down the tribe’s main protest camp on Dec. 5, Custer’s birthday.

“I said, ‘Hey, dude, this isn’t right,’” Clark recalled. “‘Let’s get some people together and do something about it.’”

Dec. 5 also happened to be the day that Veterans Stand for Standing Rock was scheduled to take part in its first “direct-action” protest against law enforcement personnel guarding the road to the pipeline. Clark’s plan, as detailed in the op order, was to lead a brazen attempt to break through the security barrier. If successful, the group would then proceed to the drilling pad, which they’d encircle arm-in-arm. He’d be joined at the helm by Wood. But the action carried some significant risks. Past attempts to infiltrate the construction site had resulted in violence. On Nov. 21, dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with the police. One woman almost lost an arm to an explosion, the source of which has been hotly debated.  

As Clark tells it, he hadn’t paid much attention to the situation in Standing Rock until he was contacted by a Sioux elder, a friend of a friend, in late summer. By that point, stories of Native Americans protesters, referred to locally as “water protectors,” being brutalized by private-security-backed law enforcement officials had begun circulating on the internet, often accompanied by shaky cell phone footage that seemed to confirm the troubling accounts. The elder told Clark that she had witnessed the brutality firsthand. She had seen people attacked by police dogs, beaten with batons, and shot with rubber bullets. That was enough to convince Clark that he needed to get involved. But he’d need help. He called Wood, a friend and fellow activist, who had left the Baltimore police department in 2014 to become an advocate for national police reform.

Michael Wood Jr. speaks to Task & Purpose during an interview.Task & Purpose photo
Michael Wood Jr. speaks to Task & Purpose during an interview.

“I said, ‘Hey, dude, this isn’t right,’” Clark recalled. “‘Let’s get some people together and do something about it.’”        

Clark was born in Florida and grew up on military bases around the United States and Europe while his father rose to become one of the most powerful officers in the Army. Wesley Clark Sr. began his career in Vietnam, where he was wounded on the outskirts of Saigon. He retired in 2000 as a four-star general after a final posting as Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo War. Then, in 2003, he ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination on a platform that criticized the Iraq War and called for measures to combat climate change.

Like his father, Clark Jr. served as an officer in the Army, from 19921996. More recently, as a co-host of the political web series The Young Turks, he has also been a forceful advocate for environmental conservation. But when he announced his decision to lead a group of veterans to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, his father told him he was “making the biggest mistake of [his] life,” Clark told me. He dismissed his father’s concerns. Unlike Vietnam, which Clark refers to as a “pointless war,” stopping the pipeline was, to his mind, a cause worth dying for. Deeply religious, Clark said that he also saw it as his Christian duty: “Jesus Christ said, ‘What you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’” Before he left his home in California for Standing Rock, Clark recorded a last will and testament.

Deeply religious, Clark said that he also saw it as his Christian duty: “Jesus Christ said, ‘What you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’”

Clark’s father wasn’t the only former general officer who attempted to dissuade him from rallying veterans to protest the pipeline. In late November, as the media hype around the group began to swell, Clark Sr. received an email from James “Spider” Marks. A retired Army major general, Marks is now the director of a D.C.-based communications firm employed by Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access pipeline. He’s also the advisory board chair of TigerSwan, a private security firm that Energy Transfer Partners hired to help protect the drilling site near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The email, which Clark Sr. forwarded to his son, was brief:

“Understand your son is voicing his opposition to the pipeline construction. Just an FYI…81% of DAPL workers and 68% North Dakota law enforcement are vets. Not sure if that would modify or minimally inform your son’s interest. Just FYI. Thx much.”

Although Clark shrugged off the message, it seems to have fueled a sense of paranoia that would only grow as the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock operation ramped up. Several days before the mission began, he told me over the phone that he was convinced someone was going to try to assassinate him. But by that point, it was too late to back out even if he wanted to: The story of a bunch of veterans heading to Standing Rock to act as human shields for the Native American “water protectors” had become national news. And then there were the volunteers, which over the course of several days in late November had jumped from a few dozen to more than 2,000. Many had already invested in plane tickets and other modes of transportation with the understanding that they’d be reimbursed by the money the organization had raised on GoFundMe.

For Clark, there was also another, more personal reason: He believed he was on a mission from God.       

The young woman behind the Hertz counter rolled her eyes when I asked if she could show me how to get around the police checkpoints on the road out of Bismarck. She had green hair and two nose piercings, and a tattoo of a black scorpion on the inside of her left bicep. She told me she’d had a long day — the longest day ever. It was Dec. 3, the day before the official start of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock mission.

She eyed my rucksack. “I’d really recommend paying the twenty-five dollars a day for the loss damage waiver,” she said. “You know, in case a tomahawk goes through your windshield.” I asked if she’d used that pitch a lot. “Today? On everyone.”

Clark and Wood had set the cap for volunteers at 2,000. By most estimates, more than twice that number of veterans showed up.

The luggage carousel area must have looked like quite a circus to someone who grew up on the windswept plains of south-central North Dakota. There were Patagonia-clad yuppies clutching prayer flags. And militant hipsters in black vegan leather. And journalists from the coasts. Local news crews plucked people from the crowd for interviews. The philosophy professor and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West held court by the escalators. But the real highlight of the evening were the veterans, drawing camera flashes with their duffel bags and old military uniforms.

As we prepared to drive the 55 or so miles south to the reservation, rumors circulated among the crowd: The cops are on the lookout for activists. … Hardware stores are refusing to serve non-locals. … Walmart won’t sell you toilet paper in packs bigger than four. … A few veterans were pulled over for speeding, and they had been going the speed limit. …

“If you are here with Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, raise your hand!” bellowed a stout, middle-aged woman standing in the center of the airport crowd. The chatter ceased. More hands went up than I could count.

Clark and Wood had set the cap for volunteers at 2,000. By most estimates, more than twice that number of veterans showed up.

A "Spirit Rider" offers moral support to the group unfolding a giant American flag. The flag was visible by the entire Oceti Sakowin Camp.Photo by David Gutierrez
A “Spirit Rider” offers moral support to the group unfolding a giant American flag. The flag was visible by the entire Oceti Sakowin Camp.

The following morning, I found Clark standing alone outside the Prairie Knights Casino. I was expecting a man prepared to lead a brigade-sized element of troops into battle, but there was nothing about his appearance or demeanor that suggested he was gearing up for anything other than a casual stroll on a chilly winter day. Instead of camouflage and body armor, he was wearing a white wool poncho and a pair of faded jeans. The sneakers on his feet seemed dangerously inadequate for the task of charging a police barricade in the snow. As for supplies? In one hand, he held a box of gummy worms; in the other, a tub of Vaseline. Gummy worms, he said, were best when eaten cold.

As we drove the 10 miles to the protest camp, Clark chain-smoked cigarettes and rehashed everything that happened since he’d arrived in Standing Rock several days before. He told me I had missed all the action, and that the operation was no longer under his control. He said that he’d met with members of the local sheriff’s office and Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, the commander of the North Dakota National Guard, and that they had mutually agreed to avoid any sort of confrontation. (In a press conference, Dohrmann confirmed that such a meeting took place.)  There was also another unexpected development: Tribal elders didn’t want him, or any other outsiders, leading a group of protesters. This was their fight, he said. All of the veterans Clark had beckoned to Standing Rock would now have to take orders from the Sioux.

“It’s totally out of my hands now, brother,” Clark said. “The elders want us to do peace and prayer, so that’s what we’re going to do.” Then, after a pause, he added, “Look, me and our whole staff, and most of the vets I know here, we all have PTSD. So if we go to the frontline and they start hitting us, I’m perfectly happy to take a few blows and stuff, but some people may flip out. And we can’t have an incident where there’s any question in anyone’s mind of who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.”

As we drove through the entrance of the protest camp, one of the guards, a Native American, reached into the window to shake Clark’s hand. “You’re Mr. Clark, aren’t you?” he said. “Thank you for this.”

“I’m not ‘mister,’” Clark demurred. “I’m just a dude.” Then, as we pulled away, he leaned out the window and said to the guard, “I love you, bro.”

“… we can’t have an incident where there’s any question in anyone’s mind of who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.”

Clark wasn’t the only one theorizing that veteran protesters could be easily provoked to violence because they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The day before, the local sheriff, Paul D. Laney, had held a press conference that sounded more like the deranged musings of a conspiracy theorist than an official brief from a seasoned lawman.  

“We have received very concerning intel that an element within the protest movement wants to exploit veterans with PTSD, arm them, and try to trigger their PTSD and turn them aggressive,” Laney said. “Besides being horrible and wrong, it could be dangerous and deadly.” That fear seems to have been internalized on the other side of the Missouri, as well. One night, just after the first wave of veterans arrived on the ground, a group of camp guards burst into one of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock tents in search of weapons and information about caches that, according to rumors, had been dug throughout the camp.

Navy veteran Rob McHaney, of Reno, N.V., walks with an American flag at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. AP Photo by David Goldman
Navy veteran Rob McHaney, of Reno, N.V., walks with an American flag at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

No weapons were ever found, but the assumption that the veterans who’d come to Standing Rock were psychologically scarred and wired for violence pervaded the entire deployment. During a ceremony at the Prairie Knights Casino, a Native American woman stood in front of a formation of about 400 veterans and told them that their “PTSD intersects perfectly” with the PTSD of the Sioux people. Many, if not most, of the veterans in the formation nodded their heads in agreement.

Stereotypes about veterans also raised concerns among the protesters. A young activist from Kansas City named Ingrid Vacca, who had been on the ground for 10 days before the veterans arrived, told me that a lot of anxiety preceded their arrival. “There was a lot of talk of, well, there’s going to be a confrontation, and it might be violent,” Vacca said. “People were scared. If a cop started shooting at a vet, I have no idea what would’ve happened.”

But it never came to that. On the afternoon of Dec. 4, only a few hours after the official start of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock mission, the Corps of Engineers denied the easement.

The news hit the reservation like a thunderclap, spreading in a wave of cheers and ululations. Native Americans joined hands with protesters from around the world — from places as far as Arizona, New York, Israel, and Japan — and danced circles around a bonfire in the snow. The smoke of burning sage engulfed elders as they spoke ancient prayers through megaphones, while teenage boys on horseback raised the flags of their respective tribes and paraded triumphantly through the celebration. After a months-long, and occasionally brutal, battle with a multibillion-dollar, government-backed corporation, this was the outcome nobody had expected. Victory for the underdog.

A member of Veterans Stand for Standing Rock looks out across the main protest camp while people celebrate the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to deny the pipeline easement. Photo by Alex Miller
A member of Veterans Stand for Standing Rock looks out across the main protest camp while people celebrate the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to deny the pipeline easement.

Most of the veterans had just arrived at the camp, readily identifiable by the old military uniforms they wore, and people thanked them. Some were still stuck in the line of honking cars that stretched for about a mile from the camp’s entrance and continued to grow as revelers rushed in from across the reservation. Wood was still an hour’s drive from Standing Rock when, he said, he received a text message from a colonel with the Corps of Engineers, personally informing him of the Corps’ decision.         

Meanwhile, Clark said, as he was preparing to give his second speech of the day at the top of an elevated portion of the camp nicknamed “media hill,” he was approached by a member of the Sioux who whispered a few words in his ear. The message galvanized the fears he’d been quietly harboring all along: One faction of the tribe wanted him dead. Was it true, as some claimed, that veterans had gotten drawn into an internal camp rivalry between competing native groups? Clark wasn’t sure, and Task & Purpose was unable to confirm the story.

But he wasn’t taking any chances. The speech never happened.  

As celebrations erupted on the banks of the Missouri, Clark took off his white wool poncho, donned some body armor, pulled a hood over his head, and slipped through the barbwire fence encircling the camp. When I found him that night, outside the Prairie Knights Casino, he was chain-smoking with one of his assistants, Travis, who had also fled the camp. Both men seemed shaken up, but they were already planning a follow-up mission. “We’re going to Flint, Michigan next,” Clark vowed.      

“Wes Clark. Wesley Clark. Is there a Wesley Clark Jr. here?” someone shouted, eliciting giggles from the shivering crowd. “Wes Clark, if you are in this formation, please step forward and take charge!”

It was 8 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 5 and about 150 veterans had mustered in front of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock headquarters tent, an olive drab GP Medium, like the ones in “M.A.S.H.” Clark hadn’t been seen in the protest camp since he’d mysteriously vanished the day before, and calling his name had become a running joke among the several hundred vets who’d bedded down in the camp’s designated “veteran” area, a row of military tents that had been hastily erected for the mission. Now, as the first snow of an approaching blizzard began to fall, people were taking turns channeling their inner-Braveheart in an effort to fire up the group.

Veterans march in solidarity with Native Americans the day after the Army Corps of Engineers' announcement, Dec. 5. 2016. Task & Purpose photo
Veterans march in solidarity with Native Americans the day after the Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement, Dec. 5. 2016.

“We’re going to go up to that bridge and be strong for the Sioux people!” a man wearing desert camouflage pants yelled from atop a woodpile, as if surrounded by a company of Marines preparing to storm Fallujah. But the mission was purely symbolic. The veterans had volunteered to accompany Sioux elders on a peaceful march — a victory lap of sorts — to the bridge spanning the Missouri River, the so-called “frontline” in the battle between protesters and police that had raged in the months leading up to the Corps of Engineers’ decision to halt the pipeline.  

“Wes Clark, if you are in this formation, please step forward and take charge!”

Had the Corps of Engineers followed through with its original plan, the Morton County sheriff’s department would have been attempting to clear the camp at that very moment. It’s difficult to imagine how such an effort would have succeeded. With the arrival of the veterans and others, the camp had swelled, by some estimations, to 20,000 people, about four times its size in the preceding weeks. Now, the helicopters and surveillance drones that had kept a constant presence over the camp had vanished, and only a lone pickup truck stood guard on the other side of the bridge. Even so, some of the veterans didn’t seem to have gotten the memo, or perhaps they weren’t prepared to let go of the idea that they had come to Standing Rock to protect the Sioux from physical harm. Whatever it was, the timing of the Corps’ decision, which coincided with the start of the mission, had created a new reality that, for many in the camp, was difficult to absorb.

Gas masks were donned and about a dozen shields cut from cannibalized 55-gallon plastic drums were handed out as the group prepared to join some of the Sioux tribal elders for a march to the bridge. An elderly man, his hair long and grey beneath a “Vietnam Veteran” trucker hat, stood tall with an American flag and hockey shin pads. More than a few people were wearing body armor. However, one of the elders reminded the veterans that the plan was not to assault the bridge but to pray in front of it.

Some mild bickering followed, but the gas masks and shields were eventually cast aside. From the back of the formation, a shrill voice inquired, “You mean we can’t defend ourselves?” It sounded as if whoever said it was on the verge of tears.

In the military, a rigid hierarchy is what empowers leaders to make difficult, often dangerous decisions, and helps ensure that their subordinates will see those decisions through. But at Standing Rock, there was no official chain of command, no rank, no way to identify who was who. Clark and Wood were widely accepted as the commanders of the mission. Veterans had been inspired by their clarity of purpose and fearless talk, taking off time from work and traveling by plane, train, and caravan from across the country, prepared to follow the two men into a barrage of pepper-spray, water cannons, rubber bullets, and even real bullets, if need be.

But now Clark and Wood were attending to business elsewhere. Without them, the operation bore little resemblance to anything you’d ever see carried out by the military.

A Vietnam veteran leads the way as veterans step off to join the Lakota people in a peaceful prayer on highway 1806.Photo by David Gutierrez
A Vietnam veteran leads the way as veterans step off to join the Lakota people in a peaceful prayer on highway 1806.

After the march to the bridge, where the elders prayed while the veterans stood by, waving the flags of the different armed forces, the blizzard set in. The snow blocked roads out of the camp and the wind blew down tents. Before long, the lack of leadership and organization became dangerous. Supplies failed to arrive. Evacuation plans were never sufficiently coordinated. Groups of veterans roamed the camp attempting to offer support in case elderly and mentally ill comrades had been left stranded and without heat. By nightfall, everyone was openly wondering what had happened to the funds Veterans Stand for Standing Rock had raised for the mission. None of the veterans had yet been reimbursed for their travel expenses. Some had arrived in debt, and without even minimal spending money.  

“We raised a ton of money just getting supplies in here, but everything we’ve received so far, including the food, was donated by the Sioux,” said a young Marine veteran from Washington D.C., who was warming up next to a wood fire stove in the camp when I met him, and who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that if he was quoted criticizing the leadership he might not receive $1,100 the organization still owed him. “We all directed donors to the GoFundMe and then we got a notice that the money couldn’t be accessed. So, a lot of people are really worried about that.”

“Where I come from in the military, if you fuck up, you own up to that fuck-up. So they need to admit that they fucked up or this is a joke.”

Wood told me that the money — the $1.14 million (and counting) raised in donations that was supposed be used on transportation, supplies, food, bail money, protective equipment, medical supplies and lodging — was tied up in the bank, which, he said, was only releasing it at a rate of $15,000 a day. Wood also said that veterans were told in briefings before the mission that they were expected to arrive at the camp prepared to be self-sufficient.

Many of the veterans I spoke with were willing to accept Wood’s excuse. But in the eyes of some, Clark and Wood had proven themselves unfit to lead or even attach their names to an organization that was supposed to operate according to the protocols and values intrinsic to the military, where leaders are expected to always put the needs of their subordinates before their own.

A tent collapses during a snow blizzard that hit the Standing Rock camp on Dec. 5, 2016.Task & Purpose photo
A tent collapses during a snow blizzard that hit the Standing Rock camp on Dec. 5, 2016.

“Had they just come out and say they fucked up and slept under the bleachers with everyone else, and Clark gave his hotel room up to old guys sleeping on the floor down in the camp, I would’ve forgiven him,” said Luke Eastman, a Navy veteran from San Diego, who, like many of the vets I spoke with, went to Standing Rock to make the sort of meaningful impact on the world he felt he’d failed to make in the military. “Where I come from in the military, if you fuck up, you own up to that fuck-up. So they need to admit that they fucked up or this is a joke. This is a big embarrassment to the veteran community.”  

Both men have since apologized publicly.

The morning of Dec. 5, Custer’s 177th birthday, found Clark in the Prairie Knights Casino auditorium, standing before a delegation of Sioux elders with a small formation of veterans at his back. The missing veteran, the one who’d left the suicide note, had been found near the camp, alive, and now everything was proceeding according to plan. As the room filled with a mix of tribal members and people in military uniform, droves of reporters scrambled for real estate, and a tight circle of cameras formed, all of them pointed at Clark, regal in his freshly ironed Army dress uniform and gold-braided cavalry stetson. Ten miles away, at that very moment, veterans were marching to the bridge over the Missouri.

“We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke,” Clark said, his face a mask of tragedy.  

As Clark spoke, enumerating all the ways the Sioux had suffered at the hands of the U.S. government since the late 19th century, emotions in the audience ran high. Eyes watered. But it wasn’t until Clark and the veterans behind him knelt before the delegation that the tears really started to flow. “We are at your service,” Clark said, his voice beginning to crack, “and we beg for your forgiveness.”    

Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota medicine man, placed his hand on the back of Clark’s head. A woman in the crowd let out a ululating cry, and, as the Los Angeles Times noted in its heartwarming chronicle of the event, “hardened veterans wept openly.” Songs were sung, prayers were spoken, and Crow Dog made an appeal for world peace. Forgiveness had been granted.   

But there was one more order of business before the ceremony concluded: an announcement. Clark was going to be baptized into the Episcopal Church during his stay on the reservation. The news was delivered by Phyllis Young, a Sioux tribal elder who had helped Clark coordinate the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock deployment. “He didn’t come here to get into a fight,” she said. “He didn’t come here to be part of us. He is becoming a Christian, and I think that’s the real celebration of life.”

Then, perhaps sensing some restlessness in the audience, Young assured the veterans that it was for the best that they hadn’t taken part in any direct-action protests against the pipeline during the brief window between the start of the mission and the denial of the easement, which had brought it to a sudden halt. It would’ve triggered their PTSD.   

Had someone told the veterans down in the camp, the ones calling Clark’s name as they prepared to march on the bridge, that Clark was, at that very moment, apologizing to the Sioux people on behalf of the entire veteran community, they would have scratched their heads in confusion. That was never part of the plan.

“While cars are flipping off the road, and tents are blowing down, and dudes are frantically trying to make sure people have enough wood, our fearless leader is up there getting his picture taken.”

Later, Wood told me that he, too, hadn’t been briefed beforehand by Clark or anyone about the ceremony, and that he immediately realized it would upset a lot of the group’s supporters. And it did. In the days that followed, as videos of the ceremony circulated on the internet, accompanied by a barrage of news segments and articles, veterans who had participated in mission fumed.   

“I’m here to support the Native Americans, but I don’t have anything to apologize for,” Eastman said, echoing numerous complaints I heard as news of the ceremony trickled down into the protest camp. “While cars are flipping off the road, and tents are blowing down, and dudes are frantically trying to make sure people have enough wood, our fearless leader is up there getting his picture taken.”  

Eastman wasn’t exaggerating. As the blizzard intensified and temperatures dropped, the situation down at the camp verged on disaster. On Dec. 5, around the time of the apology ceremony, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, David Archambault II, told reporters that, while he appreciated all of the outside support, he now wanted all non-Sioux protesters to leave the reservation. The veterans were no exception, and with Clark once again nowhere to be found, the responsibility of getting everyone out of Standing Rock largely fell on Wood’s shoulders.  

“To be honest, when I arrived, nothing was set up the way it was supposed to be by Clark and the advance party,” Wood told me later. “I showed up and a lot of things that were supposed to be there were not there. And then it became, ‘You organized this and you need to come rescue us.’ Yes, we had a moral obligation to do that, but it was chaos.”

Cars drive through the Standing Rock camp during a snow blizzard. Task & Purpose photo
Cars drive through the Standing Rock camp during a snow blizzard.

Despite Archambault’s plea, by Monday afternoon, going home was not an option for anyone. While veterans in the camp scrambled to gather food and fortify their shelters, those who had attended the apology ceremony were stranded in the Prairie Knights Casino auditorium. Despite the obvious economic opportunities presented by this predicament, the bars stopped serving alcohol. At one point, a disheveled young protester with blonde hair, who had made it out of the camp just before the road shut down, slammed his fist on the bar. “Goddammit!” he yelled. “All I want is a fucking beer!”  

It took several days to get the bulk of the veterans off the reservation, and it wasn’t just the weather that kept them there. Many of the veterans had travelled to Standing Rock on tour buses Wood had rented for the mission, and the only gas station within miles of the casino ran out of gas.   

It didn’t take long for disgruntled participants to begin voicing their complaints on social media, and Wood soon found himself at war on Facebook and Twitter. Clark and Wood’s explanation— that at least half of the money, including the portion allotted for reimbursements, was temporarily inaccessible due to automatic bank security protocols and that they’d had to get a loan from GoFundMe to help cover the essentials in the meantime — didn’t satisfy their critics, who turned #WheresTheMoneyWes into a rallying cry. Facing accusations of fraud, Wood later told me he’d hired a third-party company to audit the organization, which, he said, will reveal that most of the $1.14 million has already been spent on food, supplies, and transportation, leaving just enough, he estimates, to reimburse everyone for additional expenses. “All of these people have worked for private companies or the government, and neither reimburse you immediately,” he pointed out. “So why did they think that’d be the case with us?”

Meanwhile, Clark filmed a video, titled “Commander Update,” which he posted to Facebook on Dec. 6. After acknowledging the logistical failures, and vowing to reimburse all of the participants, he concluded the video by saying, “We’d kind of like to stay together as an organization. And there’s never going to be any salaries; there’s never going to be any headquarters. But we’ll do a mission every couple months to try to do some good, try to spread the love, try to spread the peace, and try and build a better world that doesn’t feel like a police state or a prison that we’re all locked inside of.”

The next day, Clark tweeted, “Just randomly ran into the sheriff, asked him to apologize, drop charges and push for peace. God works in mysterious ways.” Clark managed to leave the reservation that night, and he has since been in engaged in a running Twitter battle with an army of trolls and critics. On Dec. 11, the Veterans Stand Twitter account tweeted an announcement that read: “Going forward @WesClarkjr will branch off as the ‘27th Cavalry’ as a spiritual mission based upon similar goals from different perspectives.” In the reply thread, someone wrote, “Spiritual” is Code for Wes’ new “I found jesus” nonsense. Save it Wes. We’re educated. No one is buying it.” Clark replied: “The great thing is nobody has to buy anything. I found a whole lot more than Jesus but his message of love resonates.”

Wood confirmed to Task & Purpose that Clark is no longer affiliated with the organization. He added that the group, dubbed Veterans Stand, is now being registered as a nonprofit, with the goal of continuing to organize mass deployments of veterans to support beleaguered communities throughout the country. I asked about Clark’s fears of assassination and odd behavior. “Paranoia did invade a lot of members of the command,” he said. After a little more prodding, Wood acknowledged, “Yeah, I kicked him out.

I spoke to Clark over the phone about a week after the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock mission ended. He was about to take his children to the movies and seemed to be in high spirits. The baptism, Clark said, never happened. He had been too busy. “We’ll do it next time I’m out there,” he said.

“Paranoia did invade a lot of members of the command,” he said. After a little more prodding, Wood acknowledged, “Yeah, I kicked him out.”

As for his departure from the organization, he described it as more of a mutual decision. “Michael and I disagreed over the level of spirituality and what our goals were,” he said. “He wasn’t totally into the apology. I also wanted to write a letter to the president to ask for Leonard Peltier to be granted access to a spiritual advisor and other stuff in prison, and he didn’t agree with that.” (Peltier, a Native American activist, is currently serving two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents.) The 27th Cavalry, Clark said, will conduct “nonviolent, direct-action to help improve society, and to help ensure freedom of religion, for all religions.”  

Clark didn’t flinch when I asked him if he still believed his life had been in danger during the operation. “Absolutely,” he said. “I stepped into a conflict between the structure of the camp that had begun occurring about the three days before I arrived there.” It wasn’t until I brought up the complaints from mission participants about the apology ceremony that his tone turned defensive. “Can I answer that? Go back and read the very first operations order I wrote and every one after that. It’s directly there, in paragraph three, the very first step. So anyone who says they weren’t aware of it is an idiot and doesn’t read.”

Following our conversation, I re-read the entire operations order — once, twice, and then a third time just to be sure. There was no mention of an apology ceremony.           

Marine Corps veteran Nesky Hernandez, center, carries his pack after arriving with fellow veterans at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. AP Photo by David Goldman
Marine Corps veteran Nesky Hernandez, center, carries his pack after arriving with fellow veterans at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

Seen up close, the story of the veterans who flocked to Standing Rock in the winter of 2016 to face down a phalanx of corporate security guards and police officers, amid the glare of the national news media, smacks of a degree of folly. But when you pan out a little, what you see is this: 4,000 veterans dropped everything they were doing to heed a distress call that the country as a whole had largely ignored for months. They quickly organized themselves, however messily, into something that vaguely resembled a military unit. Their mission was to help a disenfranchised and proud community in its struggle against a government-backed, multibillion corporation, and they accomplished that mission simply by presenting a unified front — one the opposition couldn’t easily undermine with accusations of being un-American, or racist, or criminal. So instead their critics attempted to portray the veterans with Standing Rock, and thus veterans in general, as psychologically unstable. It almost worked, too — and indeed, some veterans themselves found the idea plausible. But in the end, the charge didn’t stick.

“One of the tragedies of coming home is that it’s possible to suddenly feel like you’re not necessary anymore to society or anyone else.”

Of course, each veteran had his or her own personal motivations for going to Standing Rock, along with a set of expectations about what they hoped to gain or achieve through the experience. Many were motivated by a genuine desire to protect the Sioux people. Others were Native American themselves, appalled that government forces were doing to their own people what they themselves had done on the government’s behalf in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Some went because they missed the camaraderie they had experienced in uniform. A few I spoke with seemed to be on a quest for some sort of spiritual awakening, and found Clark’s apology ceremony, and Clark himself, profoundly moving. Several seemed to have wandered into the operation simply because they had nowhere better to be. But they all shared an acute sense of pride in their military service, and the common experience — whether they’d served on a ship in the Pacific or with the infantry in Ramadi — of having been in situations where they’d had to place the welfare of others before their own.

And this, ultimately, seems to have been the primary motivation that fueled the movement. In his latest book, “Tribe,” war journalist Sebastian Junger argues that most veterans who’ve been diagnosed with PTSD aren’t actually suffering because they’ve been exposed to trauma. Their pain stems instead, he theorizes, from a profound sense of alienation resulting from the transition back into civilian life. “I think in the military you get a very intoxicating sense of urgency and being necessary to others,” Junger told me. “One of the tragedies of coming home is that it’s possible to suddenly feel like you’re not necessary anymore to society or anyone else. And a political movement, like Standing Rock, suddenly gives ordinary people access to the possibility of feeling necessary again, and feeling meaningful, and feeling like they are protecting and preserving the future of our society. That is something that humans, for hundreds of thousands of years, have been hardwired to respond to in really positive ways.”

Army veteran Nick Biernacki, of Indiana, prays at the Cannonball River at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. AP Photo by David Goldman
Army veteran Nick Biernacki, of Indiana, prays at the Cannonball River at the Oceti Sakowin camp where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

When news broke of the Corps of Engineers’ decision to deny the easement, I was standing in the casino, waiting for a meeting with Clark, who never showed. A woman suddenly dashed across the lobby. “The pipeline was denied!” she yelled. People standing in line for the casino buffet, one of the only restaurants in town, pulled out their cell phones, which all at once sprung to life in a chorus of ringtones. My phone wasn’t picking up a signal, so I peered over a woman’s shoulder to watch a livestream news report of the announcement. Others gathered, and soon there were perhaps a dozen of us crowded around the phone. As it became evident that the decision was final, the woman’s hands started shaking.

Until that point, all I had seen, both on the internet and on the ground, in the packs of radical-chic hipsters marching through the camps and the grandiose speeches that framed the Sioux’s struggle in apocalyptic terms, had looked like a kind of charade — a bit of absurdist theater performed on a stage that was, at root, all too real. I have seen something similar on the front lines of war. But as I watched the woman’s hands tremble, and saw the men around her straighten their backs and exchange solemn nods, I realized that the people of Standing Rock had remained focused on the objective all along. By standing up for themselves, inspiring thousands of Americans to rally to their cause, and maintaining the integrity of their peaceful struggle even as the circus came to town, they had pulled off the impossible.

Just then, a man in jungle camouflage walked by. The woman, wiping tears from her eyes, grabbed him by the arm and said, “Thank you.”      

Russell Midori, Marty Skovlund Jr., and Alex Miller contributed to this reporting. To see more photos by David Gutierrez, visit his website.