Army veterans return to Standing Rock to form a human shield against police – Sam Levin in Cannon Ball, North Dakota Saturday 11 February 2017 05.00 EST


Jake Pogue, a 32-year-old marine corps vet, returned to the Sacred Stone camp on Friday. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

Jake Pogue, a 32-year-old marine corps vet, returned to the Sacred Stone camp on Friday. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

US veterans are returning to Standing Rock and pledging to shield indigenous activists from attacks by a militarized police force, another sign that the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline is far from over.

Army veterans from across the country have arrived in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, or are currently en route after the news that Donald Trump’s administration has allowed the oil corporation to finish drilling across the Missouri river.

“We are prepared to put our bodies between Native elders and a privatized military force,” said Elizabeth Williams, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran, who arrived at Standing Rock with a group of vets late Friday. “We’ve stood in the face of fire before. We feel a responsibility to use the skills we have.”

It is unclear how many vets may arrive to Standing Rock; some organizers estimate a few dozen are on their way, while other activists are pledging that hundreds or more could show up in the coming weeks. An estimated 1,000 veterans traveled to Standing Rock in December just as the Obama administration announced it was denying a key permit for the oil company, a huge victory for the tribe.

The massive turnout – including a ceremony in which veterans apologized to indigenous people for the long history of US violence against Native Americans – served as a powerful symbol against the $3.7bn pipeline.

But the presence of vets was not without controversy. Some said the groups were disorganized and unprepared to camp in harsh winter conditions, and others lamented that they weren’t following the directions of the Native Americans leading the movement.

Vets with post-traumatic stress disorder also suffered in the cold and chaotic environment without proper support, said Matthew Crane, a US Navy veteran who is helping coordinate a return group with the organization VeteransRespond. His group has vowed to be self-sufficient and help the activists, who call themselves “water protectors”, with a wide range of services, including clean up efforts, kitchen duties, medical support and, if needed, protection from police.

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