My cry for student loan forgiveness

With the 2020 Presidential election ramping up, the Democratic candidates for president have been throwing around a number of different policy proposals. While my passion is primarily around war, military, veteran, and foreign policy, another important policy position that I am constantly thinking about is tied to higher education, specifically around loan forgiveness. First was Elizabeth Warren with her proposal to forgive up to $50,000 worth of student loans. While I thought this was a good idea, I still didn’t feel it went far enough. Then in the past week Bernie Sanders came out with a call for complete loan forgiveness, which is what I am all in for. Let me tell you why…

In 2001, I in part joined the military to get money for college. I had spent the year before in college at Mesa State and had racked up about $15,000 worth of student loan debt. But in that year I had realized that I wasn’t ready for college, but I knew that someday I did want to return to school. So I decided to join the military, where they said I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for college once I got out. Because I was in the military the loans were deferred. I paid into the GI Bill which was $100 out of my paycheck for the first year of service, which would then "pay for college" once I was out of the military.

Fast forward to exiting the military. I left the military angry and confused about my service and wanted to better understand what I had just been through over the past four years, so I returned to school. I was able to utilize the GI Bill, but it was the "old GI Bill," which basically gave me a stipend every month, but it didn’t actually cover tuition, so I took out just enough to cover my tuition, and lived off the stipend, while also working a couple of jobs since the GI Bill only covered a portion of what living in Fort Collins actually costs. This put me at about $50,000 by the time I finished my BA in Political Science and Sociology.

Toward the end of my BA they were switching from the old GI Bill to the New GI Bill, which not only covered the cost of tuition, but also provided a monthly stipend, as well as a book and supplies stipend. Because I had already started on the old GI Bill, I was given the option, switch to the New GI Bill with one year left of my BA, and then all of my benefits would be finished, OR, finish my BA with the old GI Bill and get one year of the New GI Bill for when I get my masters degree, so needless to say I chose the latter since I wanted to continue my education. So the first year of my MA was completely covered and I received a living stipend which was nice. But my second year I had to be completely reliant upon student loans. I knew that I would be continuing on to a PhD program in either Hawaii or California, where there is a much higher cost of living so I took out a bit more money and sat on it for when I would move. I ended up getting into the University of Hawaii to get a PhD in Political Science, though because of a decrease in the funding of PhD programs across the US, I would have to pay for this and I was an out-of-state student so the cost was quite exorbitant. After my first year in Hawaii I was able to apply for in-state tuition, which definitely helped however I still needed to take out loans no matter what grants and awards I was taking in order to focus upon my PhD.

There were many people in my program who didn’t take out loans (or at least smaller amounts than me), worked 2-3 jobs, and slowly worked on their PhD; to which, many who took this route  took many more years for them to complete their PhD, some still have not. I on the other hand wanted to intensively focus on my studies so I didn’t work, besides teaching a few classes which only enriched my studies, but I wanted to finish my coursework as quickly as possible so I could move back to the mainland and start working on my dissertation. I spent two years in Hawaii, then it took me another two years to complete my dissertation and earn a PhD. So after all was said and done I had accumulated $150,000 worth of student loan debt.

I had justified the debt with the idea that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a tenure track position at a school where I would start anywhere between 50-75k annually, and then I would be able to start paying off these loans. Unfortunately, tenure track positions have become harder and harder to find. Why? Well since the 2008 financial crisis many people decided to go back to school, this in turn has led to a huge surplus of people with PhDs on the market that I have to compete with. Couple this with the fact that because many who were about to retire had their pensions and savings effected decided not to retire there were less positions available. Then to make matters even worse, many universities are shifting their cultures, and instead of offering tenure track positions more and more of the classes being taught by adjunct faculty, which are paid at a fraction of the cost. So finding a job became very difficult.

In 2014, while finishing my dissertation, I was invited back to my BA & MA alma matter Colorado State University to teach a few courses for the Ethnic Studies department, some focused on my work around war and militarism, some department courses. There was a hope that this could lead into a tenure track position so I jumped at the opportunity, sacrificing a lot in order to have this chance to be where I really wanted to be. So for that year I wasn’t heavily invested in the job market because I thought it would pan out in Colorado. As an adjunct I was making between 4-5k per course I was teaching, and I was only teaching about 3 courses per semester so that I could focus on finishing my dissertation, then later once I realized I would need to look elsewhere for a tenure track position I had to focus on applications which is basically a full time job in and of itself. So from 2014-2017 I was making about 30k before taxes (with no real benefits as I utilized the VA instead). Because I was making so little, and I was on the income based repayment plan, my monthly payments were $0. 

I then got a postdoc in Hungary, followed by a visiting professorship in NYC. But those familiar with academia know that these do not pay a lot, so still my income based repayment plan has been set at $0. So recently while paying my taxes I decided to look at my credit score. When looking at my debts, I was shocked at what I found. Since I graduated in 2015, and I left with $150,000 of debt, only four years later now have $190,000+ worth of debt, so there has been over $40,000 worth of interest added to my debt. This makes me sick, sad, angry, and a whole host of other emotions. Something drastic must be done, because otherwise I will likely die deeply in debt, and it is only going to get worse, cause I still haven't been able to find a well paying academic job.

I think that education should be free in general, and the way in which it has become a profitable industry is disgusting. If we were to forgive all these student loans then it would be a major boost to the economy as many people who are paying on these loans would be able to actually afford houses, cars, vacations, you name it. I get sick of hearing people say, "well what about those who did pay off their loans, they are being robbed," or some other shitty argument about personal accountability. If I had paid off all my student loans yesterday I would still be for the elimination of student loan debt, because frankly we have spent the last 60+ years telling people that to succeed they have to get an education, it has become engrained into our DNA, and we have also spent the last 40 years slowly making the cost of that education become more and more unaffordable. Nobody should face crippling debt to receive an education. Thus, I think that the elimination of these loans would not only be beneficial but also a good start to reforming higher education in general. There are a number of great plans out there, which is why it's important to listen to the different positions that the presidential candidates are proposing, but reform starts at debt elimination. 

Military Veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies

Earlier in the year as I read the content and analysis of an interview of a soldier, that was conducted by scholar who had never served in the military I was struck by how much was being said "in-between" the lines by the soldier that the researcher seemed to have missed. Annoyed, I realized that it was because of my time in the military that I understood what that soldier was talking about. I reflected on my own interviews of veterans and remembered many of them telling me that they felt so much more comfortable talking to me in these interviews rather than other academics or journalists because we spoke the same language and went through many of the same ordeals. So, upon this reflection I thought that it would be good to further examine this idea of what it means to be a veteran and a scholar looking at issues centered on war. I first contacted Sarah Bulmer who had done work with another veteran academic, David Jackson (see Bulmer & Jackson, "'You do not live in my skin,': embodiment, voice and the veteran," Critical Military Stuides, 2016, 2:1-2, 25-40); and Paul Higate, a veteran who has done a lot of work around veterans and masculinity (see Military Masculinities, 2003). I began soliciting names of other academics who were veterans in our field and we came up with a panel of seven: two from Israel, two from the UK, and three from the US.

This past week at the annual Pan-European International Studies Association conference in Prague, Czechia, we convened to discuss the roll of military veterans who are now academics and what they bring to the field of International Relations (IR) and Critical Military Studies (CMS). On the panel was Daphne Inbar, Aviad Levy (both former Israeli Defense Forces soldier), myself (former US Army soldier), and it was moderated by Sarah Bulmer. Sadly 4 of the academic/veterans could not make it, two who had served in the UK and two more from the US. While the other veterans’ voices were greatly missed, a great conversation still took place which filled the session.

I opened the session by telling my background in the military, my research around veteran activism, and discussing three points that I thought was important as to what we bring to the table of IR and CMS. First and foremost, for me, as I think it may be for other veteran/academics is that it is my form of healing and demilitarizing. When I left the military I was angry and felt broken, but I wanted to understand my experience so I got into antiwar activism and I returned to school to learn about war, both the political and the social. The fire never left, but the more I learned it felt that the pieces were coming back together, and I wanted to pass on this knowledge, which is in part why I do what I do. 

Second was what I described above when was initially thinking of this panel, the ability to read the texts differently than those who have never experienced it. I greatly value my fellow academics who work on these subjects and I learn so much from them, but there are times when my embodied experience tells a different truth than what they are stating as it can complicate and transform what they are writing. The point being that too often we write in dichotomies and absolutes, though there is much more variance, some of which cannot be seen nor understood without having experienced it. Does this make experience the end all be all, definitely not, I would not be where I am in understanding militarism had it not been for those who have never experienced it. So it is not about privileging experience, which CMS is great at showing why and how experience can often be problematic, but it is more about showing how experience is a value adding process, especially when that experience has the critical/introspective researcher lens that we have.

  Finally, my third point (also touched upon above), is that we bring a different level of credibility on a number of different levels, from the ability to talk with and interview veterans and soldiers with more ease, to students giving us a bit more credibility when learning about war from us. This last point was challenged in the Q&A and I definitely understand and agree with the criticism, as it can at times have the opposite effect as some do not privilege veteran or military identities as much as other identities that they hold; thus a woman who is a survivor of military sexual trauma may not feel as at ease talking to me as a male combat arms soldier. 


Daphne followed me and in her own words about the panel, she writes:

The first point I made in the panel was in acknowledging the ways in which my military service has shaped, affected and informed my research interests. Serving as an educational instructor working with immigrant soldiers in the IDFs' largest military prison (incarceration base 394) has greatly impacted my research on the everyday resistance practices of soldiers within mass-militaries. More specifically, I shared some of the ways my service provided a specific set of 'insider' knowledge on the under-researched phenomenon of "grey refusal" among Israeli soldiers.  

The second point I raised was regarding the differences between veteran-academics coming from a mass military vs. a professional military background. Since military service is mandatory in Israel, one could say that Aviad and I come from a 'society of veterans'. Meaning, military service is not a unique experience but a shared one among most Israelis. Furthermore, there are limits to comparing our 'post-military life' experiences with other veterans from professional military backgrounds, as in the context of Israeli society, where militarization is embedded every aspect of our everyday life, the military remains present long after our completion of service. 

The third point I made was regarding how in the academic context this militarization might have unique implications to veteran scholars seeking to write from a critical perspective on their military service in mass militaries, such as self-censorship and censorship (since such critical writing suffers from delegitimization on a societal and institutional level). This point could also explain the pervasiveness of traditional military studies scholars over other critical perspectives in Israel. 

Lastly, another insight gathered from the Q&A part of the roundtable dealt with the power relations that come with incorporating embodied knowledge into our research. In response to a question on whether such the label of "veteran-scholars" only serves to reaffirm hierarchies of knowledge between veteran-scholars and non-veteran military scholars, I rather argued for the importance of deconstructing these hierarchies, and noted how these hierarchies also extend beyond scholarly debate and exist between the veterans themselves (e.g. between non-combative soldiers and combative soldiers). 

Thus, I argued that for me, being a veteran and critical scholar means also acknowledging the plurality of veteran subjectivities, experiences, and grounded truths.


Aviad went last in our first round of discussions, he writes:

I must admit that I came (into the panel) with some worries, but ended up being fully surprised by the thoughts we managed to share on stage. Most of the things I said were new even to me, as I have never reflected on them that way ever since I had finished my army service in 2005. 

I opened with a short introduction to my military service in the IDF between the years 2002 and 2005. I shared with the crowd some of the main outlines of my mandatory service as a writer and later an editor in the IDF's weekly magazine. Though it was hard for me to call myself a veteran, I could easily regard my time as a soldier as a highly significant phase, that taught me several things, which still influence my contemporary life as a young scholar. 

Being a soldier, and mainly being a soldier-journalist, pushed me into the corners where the marginal people and voices stand as the backgrounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the first time in my life, during my service, I needed to approach real political moments and issues with a real critical view. Therefore, I needed to question everything I saw and encountered with. I referred in my words also to the "grey zones" that create every military service, in which small conversations are being conducted, dark coffee is being boiled, and true love affairs might arise. As part of that, I also mentioned the issue of time and its different meanings to the life of a soldier. My point was that in contrast to what we usually read, watch, or hear about the apparent political moments of the army time - the majority of the hours on uniforms is dedicated to burning time, counting sheep, waiting, surviving boredom. One of the commenters in the crowd analyzed this notion nicely while referring to Cynthia Enloe, and suggested they are all pre-political moments. I tend to agree with her. In the end, maybe that is precisely where our mission as veterans start: this acknowledgement of the grey areas of politics that are accountable for the political no less than the well-known climaxes of wars, quarrels and military clashes.


The three perspectives created many valuable questions and insights from the crowd which filled the rest of the session. Questions related to our service, our research, and the boundaries in between. One question from another veteran-academic, asked, 'do we need to come clean and write it all down?' I believe we do. For me it is political, and while I personally see it as healing, I am hoping that it helps further research. A part of me believes that every soldier and veteran who has participated in war doesn’t want anyone to have to experience the traumas of war that we have faced, and I feel that us telling our stories and exploring these subjects in our research works to accomplish this. I also think that at the same time we work to complicate the perception of war and the military as we highlight and distort the spaciotemporal aspects of war, or the "gray zones," and as we show the joys of war (as Julia Welland discusses, see her article: "Joy and War: Reading pleasure in wartime experiences," Review of International Studies, Vol. 44, part 3, pp. 438-455).

We look forward to continuing this discussion with other academics, especially those who identify as veterans, as well as those who may not identify as veterans but also have militarized ex-soldier identities. Perhaps we can find new and productive ways to channel our experience, energy, and knowledge. I'm encouraged that other discussions like this are taking place as an upcoming workshop for veteran-academics is being held by the Defense Research Network (DRN), as a part of the Military Afterlives Project. More about can be found here https://defenceresearchnetwork.wordpress.comand more specifically about the event can be found here:


Stay tuned for more on this topic, as we hope to collaborate on future projects!

F*@K the White House Correspondents' Dinner, but Thank you Michelle Wolf!

Since 2004, when President George W. Bush made jokes about looking for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, I have hated the White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD). The biggest reason is probably because I was serving in Iraq as he made these jokes, and him joking about this reinforced my belief that he knew all along that there were no WMD’s in Iraq, and that we were sent there based on lies. That we were there so his buddies could profit, because they did. 

Every year, the WHCD would happen, and every year I would be annoyed, especially when jokes about Iraq and Afghanistan would come up. Even when they poked fun at Bush’s incompetence, I was not amused. Sure there was a funny moment here and there, and I do love comedy, but I think the setting is what bothered me the most about it. Not only was the room filled with DC elite, members of Congress, the President and his Cabinet, but it was filled with the very media who is supposed to be holding these people accountable. This was primarily the mainstream media outlets, television and print, companies that often profit from wars, because war sells. As they all sit there and laugh at jokes of Washington corruption, unwanted and unjust wars, and incompetence (of both the President and the media), I would get angrier.

This anger would continue from the Bush presidency, into the Obama presidency. While I bought into the hype of Obama’s rhetoric about change, it was hollow. Sure he changed the way we fights wars, from boots on the ground to drones, but people were still dying, most of whom were innocent. So when jokes about drones would come up, it would frustrate me. The fact that so many of the people in the room would never have to face the fear, taste the blood spilled, or gag on the stench of war, made me sick that they could so easily laugh about it. 

I still hate the WHCD, but I will say that in many ways I respected the latest one because of comedian Michelle Wolf. Probably because it was a full out attack on the people in the room, on the President, and on the media. It was uncomfortable for the crowd as she ripped into everyone. It wasn’t the regular *wink *wink nudge> nudge>most comedians put forth at the WHCD. She told the President he was full of shit, she told his family they were full of shit, she told his cabinet they were full of shit, she told congress they were full of shit, but most importantly she told the media they were full of shit. She highlighted the way in which they profit on so much of the bullshit they try to peddle as news. (continued below video)

I especially liked Michelle Wolf’s closing words, “Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water,” again calling the room on their BS. 10 people have died, and nearly 100 have come down with Legionnaires’ disease from the drinking water. Which brings me back to why I hate the WHCD, because of how flippant and privileged everyone in that room is. They don’t know the names of those who have died in Flint, just as many of them likely don’t know anyone who has died in the name of these wars. So, I have decided to compile a list of names of those who died the day before, the day of, and the day after the WHCD. While these assholes where yuckin it up with each other, many were suffering. This is in no ways a comprehensive list, but what I could find from, and the Afghanistan and Iraq lists on, I’m sure there are many more names, if you have a name to add, please let me know and I will add it to the list. (Note: I unfortunately could not find a list of names of Afghan civilians for these dates).

The list has not only US soldiers, but also a list of Iraqi civilians who died due to the war. If you look at the list of names, I recorded their age if available, and at times even their names were not available, so it goes with war. But first, you should look at the “Human Costs of War” figures compiled by the Costs of War project at Brown University. The numbers are considered conservative estimates, especially when you could add in the 800,000 people who have died as an indirect result of war. 


Human costs of war.jpg


HUMAN COSTS The number of people killed directly in the violence of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are approximated here. They, and the additional 800,000 civilians who likely have died as an indirect result of the wars, are estimated and the methods of accounting are described in the attached paper.[1]


Since the start of the Global war on terror… Day before, Day of, Day after White House Correspondents dinner… (Note: Just because no deaths were recorded on specific days does not mean they did not occur, especially in the most recent years...)

May 4, 2002 (Drew Carey hosts) 

      None recorded in Iraq or Afghanistan

April 26, 2003 (Ray Charles hosts) 


2 US soldiers the day before (Airman 1stclass Raymond Losano, 24; Pvt Jerod Dennis, 19)


2 US soldiers the day before (Spc. Narson Sullivan, 21; 1stLt. Osbaldo Orozco, 26)

8 Iraqi’s day of (Lamiya Ali, 6; Dana Ali, 8; Wife of son of Tamir Kazal; 3 Sons of Tamir Kazal 13-19; Wife of Tamir Kazal, 23; Khazal Saber, 50)

May 1, 2004 (Jay Leno… Bush has jokes about WMD’s)


               1 US soldier the day before (Spc. Phillip Witkowski, 24)


4 US soldiers the day before, 4 the day of, 9 the day after (PO3 Christopher Dickerson, 33; PO2 Jason Dwelley, 31; Corp Joshua Wildong, 22; Cpl Vincent Scott, 21; Spc Trevor Wine, 22; Sgt Joshua Ladd, 20; SSgt Oscar Vargas-Medina, 32; Spc Ramon Ojeda, 22; Spc Ervin Caradine Jr, 33; Pvt Jeremy Drexler, 23; SSgt Todd Nunes, 29; PO2 Michael Anderson, 36; PO2 Scott Mchugh, 33; PO2 Robert Jenkins, 35; PO3 Ronald Ginther, 37; Cpt John Tipton, 32)

April 30, 2005 (Cedric the Entertainer… First Lady Bush had jokes)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


5 US soldiers the day before, 2 the day of, 1 the day after (Sgt. Kenya Parker, 26; SSgt Juan Garcia-Arana, 27; Pvt Charles Cooper Jr., 19; Pv1 Darren Deblanc, 20; Cpt Ralph Harting III, 28; Cpt Stephen Frank, 29; 2Lt Clifford Gadsden, 25; Sgt. Derrick Lutters, 24)

3 Iraqi’s the day before, 3 the day of, 3 the day after (Amir Ali Hamza, 8; 15 year old boy; Ahmed al-Lu’aibi; Al Abb Razak; Mohamed Abb Razak; Talib Wahb; Rahim Ali Jum’a; Hadida Saiwan, 56; Nawal Ghareeb, 26)

April 29, 2006 (Stephen Colbert hosts)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


5 US soldiers day before, 1 day of (Sgt Steve Sakoda, 29; SSgt Bryant Herlem, 37; Cpl Brandon Hardy, 25; Sgt Lea Mills, 21; Sgt Edward Davis III, 31; Sgt Jose Gomez, 23)

2 Iraqi’s the day before, 3 the day of (Uziezy Younies Sulaieman; Policeman and his brother; Rafet Ibrahim, 27; Ahmead Ubied Thaier)

April 21, 2007 (Rich Little hosts)


1 Dutch soldier day before (Cpl Cor Strik, 21)

               1 US soldier day before (Sgt Alex Van Aalten, 21)


2 US soldiers the day before, 6 the day of (SSgt Marlon Harper, 34; Pvt Michael Slater, 19; Sgt William Bushnell, 24; SSgt Steven Tudor, 36; Pvt1 Christopher North, 21; Cpl Ray Bevel, 22; Cpl Tomasz Jura, 25; LCpl Jeffery Bishop, 23)

4 Iraqi’s the day before, 11 the day of, 6 the day after (Mulla Ghaleb Al-Dulaimi; brother of policeman; Ahmad Abd Al Emem Abdul Nabi Khazragi; Alaa Hamadi Mahmud; Mehdi Abdul Hussein al-Najem; Mohammed HarejafishKhodeir; Dawoud Nouri, 40; Omeda Shokor Majid, 35; Sulol Dawod Nori, 18-24; Solaf Dawod Nori, 8; Sami Naib al-Jumaili, 65; nephew of Sami al-Delaimi; Mohamed Salman Nemah Al Rekabi, 51; Haya Emad Fadhal Al Mansourie, 9; Ahmed Hassain Mahoon Al-Jabouri & 2 brothers; Tulba Um Qosai, 45-50; Amal Badan Dhahab Al Bodayri, 50-51; Hayssm Hashem Mahowd Shamkhy Al Saady)

April 26, 2008 (Craig Ferguson hosts)


1 Australian soldier day after (LCpl Jason Marks, 27)


1 US soldier the day of (Pvt1 William Dix, 32)

5 Iraqis the day before, 1 day of, 2 day after (Muhamad Saiid Khalaf; Raed Jaber; Mansour Shallal Monshid; Ahmad Jasib Badan; Majeed Mowice Nasser;Jabar Ghazwan; Wife of dead man; Jasim al-Battat, 38)                         

May 9, 2009 (Wanda Sykes hosts)


               1 US soldier the day after (Maj Steven Hutchison, 60)


2 US soldiers the day before, 1 the day of, 1 the day after (Spc Omar Albrak, 21; SSgt Randy Agno, 29; Pvt Justin Hartford, 21)

2 Iraqis the day before 4 the day of (Jasim Muhammad Fleih; Sabah Hasan Hussein Houri, 25; Hakeem Jassim; Abid Mohammed Hussein; Adnan Duda Matir; Ali Jabbar Jawjam Al Ka'abi


               Drone Strike kills between 9-25 people (4 civilians confirmed)

May 1, 2010 (Jay Leno hosts)


1 US soldier day of, 1 day after (MSgt Mark Coleman, 40; Spc Eric Finniginam, 26)


1 Iraqi the day before, 2 the day after (Brother of Sheikh Khalil al-Sumaidaie; Jamil Salahuddin Jamil, 25; Sandy Shibib, 19)

April 30, 2011 (Seth Meyers… Makes fun of Obama for not finding Osama, who is killed the next day… makes fun of Trump…)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


               1 US solder the day before (Pvt1 Robert Friese, 21)

3 Iraqis the day before, 4 day of, 2 day after (Hosam Mahmoud; Sa'eer Mahmoud; Salah Mahmoud; Tuma al-Timimi; Wife of Tuma al-Timimi;Daughter of Tuma al-Timimi; Daughter of dead man; Mohammed Sabah; Abdul Kareem Abdul Hussein; Mutashar al-Okaydi)

April 28, 2012 (Jimmy Kimmel hosts)


1 UK soldier the day before (Guardsman Michael Roland, 23)

2 US soldiers the day of, 1 the day after (Sgt Nicholas Dickhut, 23; MSgt Scott Pruitt, 38; Pvt1 Shristian Sannicolas, 20)


1 Iraqi the day before, 3 the day of (Sirwan Hameed; Sarajaddin Haji Maasum Naqshbandi; Sons of dead man; Sons of dead woman, 10-15)

April 27, 2013 (Conan O’Brian hosts)


4 US soldiers the day after (SSgt Daniel Fannin, 30; SSgt Richard Dickson, 24; Cpt Reid Nishizuka, 30; Brandon Cyr, 28)


2 Iraqis the day after (Ali Ward al-Jbouri; Qassim Mohammed al-Dulaimi)

May 3, 2014 (Joel McHale hosts)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


3 Iraqis the day of (Relative of parliamentary candidate Mulla Al-Jiyad; Moaz Abdellatif Al-Jiyad; Faleh Abdullah Matar)

April 25, 2015 (Cecily Strong hosts)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


2 Iraqis the day of, 1 the day after (Thaer Ali, 45-56; Son of farmer; Brigadier General Hassan Abbas)

April 30, 2016 (Larry Wilmore hosts)

            Afghanistan: None recorded


3 Iraqis the day before, 2 the day of (Father of dead male; son of dead man; Ziad Kalaf; father of dead male; son of dead construction materials shop owner)

April 29, 2017 (Hasan Minhaj hosts) 

            Afghanistan: None recorded

            Iraq: None recorded

April 28, 2018 (Michelle Wolf)


                 1 soldier killed 2 days after (MSgt Jonathan Dunbar, 36)

(I highlight this last name, because while people argue about whether the WHCD was good, bad, crude, whatever, people are still dying...)







The Last Jedi and the critique of imperialism, militarism, and neoliberalism


(Writing note: I often go back and forth between the context of the Star Wars universe and our current political climate deliberately, especially in the second half of the post)

It has long been known that Star Wars was originally an allegory for US imperialism specifically around the Vietnam War; whereas the US is the evil empire, and the Vietcong were the righteous rebels. These allegories can be continued throughout the films, through the prequels and into the most recent sequels. However, if we take a look at the larger picture a more interesting understanding  and allegory begins to take place.


           So if the original saga (Episodes IV, V, VI) are a critique on a authoritarian militaristic empire, meant to be the United States, what do the prequels (Episodes I, II, III) represent? I would say that these films are a critique on neoliberalism and the politics of the left. The prequels examine a time when there is an ineffectual government in place that is overtly corporatized and militarized. While the Jedi are purportedly the peacekeepers of the galaxy, they take orders from the Senate, which in turn places commerce over its citizenry; this can be seen in the opening of the movie as Jedi are dispatched to settle a labor dispute, thus exercising the hard power of the nexus between the neoliberal government and the militarist Jedi order, which is not supposed to take sides. Time and time again throughout the sequels we see the breakdown of governance and deregulation in favor of more and more militaristic "free" markets, until its collapse. It is then the strongman authoritarianism of the Empire that takes hold.

            It is here we should pause and take a long view. Like the disjointed order of these films and the critique, they seem to fit into the politics of today. If the prequels are a critique of neoliberalism, then we can see it's parallel in the 80's, 90's, and 00's as the slow buildup of deregulation, dynasty politics, corporatization, and militarization of the US. Interestingly enough, George Lucas even made a point to draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and some claim that Emperor Palpatine and his call for emergency powers in Revenge of the Sith strikes an eerily similar cord to President Bush in his push for the Global War on Terror. So if taken this way, we see the rise of neoliberalism leading to authoritarian rule.

            We would be remiss to then not look at our current situation with President Trump being in office. While the temporal alignment in the films reads one way the production alignment of the films reads another, but either way it plays out the same (Empire creates neoliberalism, neoliberalism creates Empire, vice versa/and so on). So if we look at the films in production order (IV, V, VI, I, II, III, VII, VIII) we see a critique on Vietnam and US imperialism, then a critique on neoliberalism, and with the latest releases we see a critique on both eras as well as a critique on fascism.

           While the empire has died in the newest films, the First Order has risen, which sounds eerily similar to the "New Order," another term for Nazism. Aesthetically, there is no doubt that the troops look similar to the Empire from the original saga, thus still representing the US, but there is a slight shift to make them resemble Nazi troops, from their flags to the formation of their rally (seen below). The rise of rightwing extremism in the US , from the rise of the Tea Party to Donald Trump becoming President, can be seen in this First Order. The rebels are easily identified by rightwing commentaries that critique the films as peddlers of diversity and social justice warriors. The Force Awakens was hailed by racists as being too diverse, cause you can't have a Black Stormtrooper, and now The Last Jedi has too many strong women. These critiques parallel the alt-right fascist politics of Supreme Leader Trump. 


          But one of the most critiqued aspects of The Last Jedi, no matter where you stand ideologically is the quest with Finn and Rose to find the 'master hacker,' which I see as one of the most important. I think that this was largely disliked because it critiqued both the left and the right as we see the excess of militarism and capitalism, we see that the rich have remained rich by perpetuating wars, selling arms to the Empire and the Rebellion… Syrians, ISIS, Israelis, Iraqis, ect... In many ways this is the stopgap between neoliberalism and militarism which was the Obama era of politics. Everything looked shiny and beautiful, luxurious, and diverse, but when you looked behind the curtains, drone warfare becomes more prevalent and arms are sold to all sides, business as usual. So again we are not only critiquing the fascism of Trump, but also the (not so) hidden militarism of Obama (visible depending upon where you are). 


So, where is the hope? Where is the escape hatch? Luke Skywalker is the perfect symbol of the hopelessness many of us feel, the nihilistic want to say fuck it all, as he sees the way neoliberalism and the Jedi Order in the prequels screwed everything up just as bad as imperial authoritarianism did of the original saga, and that while we had the illusion of hope & change in-between, we are eventually led to crap again as America was never great to begin with and you can't just keep doing the same thing over and over. So why try, right? But there is "Much to learn, you still have" as Yoda proclaims to a young petulant nation… Forward means not looking at things in black and white, light side and dark side, recognizing that it is really many shades of gray, killing the past. That if we want to escape these authoritarian tendencies with the back and forth between neoliberalism and authoritarianism, we must escape and destroy the greedy, racist, destructive tendencies of our past and forge a new future, one that is diverse and equitable. Perhaps that is where our new hope lies.


So I feel that while many may not like The Last Jedi, I think it is perfect and fits with the critique on US politics… but maybe I'm projecting… 

What “Me too” means to me: A message to other men

I am sadly unsurprised, nor shocked at the number of female friends I see posting the “me too” campaign targeted at letting folks know how pervasive sexual assault and harassment are in our society. Mostly because I am engaged within this work, I know the literature, I’ve heard the stories. But I think any man today, especially within the US, would be remiss to not understand because we have seen, participated, and perpetuated this behavior. Every single one of us. For those of you men who are getting defensive at this point, this obviously doesn’t mean every man has committed sexual assault, or even that every man has harassed a woman at some point in their life (though I do think it is a lot larger number than folks think); what it means is that we live in a culture that thinks this is ok, we live in a rape culture.

          What is a rape culture you may be asking, it is a culture where rape and sexual assault is pervasive and normalized due to the ways in which our culture decides, creates, and understands gender roles. If you need more clarification, I have made a small list of the things that contribute to what makes our society a rape culture. It is a society where:

I could really go on and on with different reasons why we live in a rape culture. But what is most important is that we talk about these issues, and it is vital for men to be talking to other men about these issues. Anyone who says this is a women's issue is a part of the problem, it is very much a men's issue as we are the one's perpetuating these acts, we are the ones committing them, actively and passively though our inaction. For too long we have remained silent on these issues. We need to speak up when we see our male friends and colleagues saying heinous things behind closed doors, we need to call out those who are perpetuating these acts, but most importantly, we need to examine the ways in which WE ourselves work to enable these things; from our silence to the media we consume. We need to listen, acknowledge, and empathize with those who have been brave enough to say "me too," because the fact of the matter is many women may be afraid to admit these things. We need to admit, as well as hold ourselves and each other accountable for our transgressions, because until we do, the words "me too" will mean nothing. 


#TakeAKnee: Protests, Racism, & Patriotism


As I sit here and watch all the vitriol around NFL players taking a knee roll in on different message boards of my favorite NFL team, the Denver Broncos, on different NFL feeds, and just across Facebook in general my heartrate spikes as my faith in humanity drops. I really feel like so many in this country need to educate themselves, but are too lazy and it's just easier to be angry. There are so many facets to this I'm not sure where I should start, but this blog will try to attempt to break down many of the different angles there are to this from my perspective.

        I suppose we should start with Collin Kaepernick, former NFL Quarterback, who many (myself included) feel is getting blackballed by the NFL for his protests during the National Anthem that started last year. The funny thing is, for the first few games he didn’t even want to participate in the National Anthem, but after talking to some fellow teammates, they thought it would be more respectful for him to come take a knee rather than hide away. But all of that is neither here nor there, the real point is why he didn’t want to participate, and why he chose to kneel. This has all been covered in much more depth than I will do here, but if you would like to learn more then I highly suggest you read the work of Dave Zirin (Hell if you're lazy you can just listen to his podcast, which is brilliant). Anyways, he was not participating primarily due to the racial injustice that is going on in this country, from the insanely high incarceration rates to the disproportionate rates at which Black folks are assaulted by police in this country. So many white folks don’t want to face the fact that it's harder to be a person of color in this country than white, just cause they also had it hard. So when you see friends, family members, community members, people who look like you not being treated with respect, it's easy to see why you may not feel like everything that flag is supposed to stand for doesn’t seem to apply to you (Not to mention the racist ass history of the National Anthem).

         Yeah we're all getting beat down in this country, but some of us WAY more than others. And I think that's probably one of the biggest problems White American's have with Kaepernick's protests, as well as the rest of the NFL's protests. They see these players as a bunch of spoiled brats who are making millions, when all they want is to be entertained, because it's their relief from the daily drudgery of our messed up society. But little do they know, often enough, or little do they care, that the average NFL player career only lasts about 3 years. And since the last round of NFL Owners vs Players Union contract agreements, those drafted are capped at very low salaries. So for the most part, you have a minority of the league making a majority of the money. Now I'm not trying to be an apologist for the amount of money these guys make, I'm just saying, they don’t all make that crazy amount of money, and it pales in comparison to the amount of money the owners are raking in, which is why they pay Goodell so damn much!

         In some ways, I feel like the only reason why the NFL owners have gotten behind this last weeks protests is to prove that "they aren't the bad guys, they aren't blackballing Kaep." To which, I still smell BS. But I think that in some ways they are afraid of losing that revenue. Not the revenue of some BS strike that Trump followers could mount in protest, cause let's face it, they will still go to games, they will watch, they will buy, and if they don’t, most NFL teams have a long waiting list for season tickets of people licking their chops to get those seats; but you can't have games if you don't have players. So when Trump says something that pisses off most the league, saying that these players should be fired for exercising their 1st amendment rights, then yeah, they are going to ease over to the players side, even if they do agree with Trump.

             Now, I want to get to what probably makes me the most angry, this idea that by protesting during the National Anthem (which we've already established as having a checkered past if you clicked on the link above), but this idea that protesting the National Anthem and the "flag" is disrespecting soldiers and veterans. This is absolutely preposterous! I say this not only as a veteran but as a person who thinks critically. If you believe this, you must understand the irony of what you say, right? Obviously not. If we are supposed to be a "free country" (again, not everyone, see incarceration link above), who believes in the first amendment (the right to free speech, which is the 1st, not the 2nd, not the 3rd, the 1st), then we should understand that those who defend the country defend the 1st amendment. So to say they are dishonoring soldiers because they are protesting is absolutely ass backwards. But I think I know where this started, and it is a result of… 9/11! Ok, I'm not going to blame everything on 9/11, the same way Trump voters blame everything on Obama, but after 9/11 the nationalistic rhetoric slowly began to rise. And with the declining view of the war in Iraq, the military sought to make the military cool again (also with all the VA scandals they needed some good PR), so what did they do? They started spendingmillions of dollars on pro-sports


Does this mean had this not happened, these people would not be so angry with NFL players for speaking out against injustice they see in their communities? Well no, they would still probably be outraged, but this perversely extraordinary amount of patriotism that became normalized at sporting events definitely set the stage for something like this to happen, since we now see soldiers and veterans regularly honored and highlighted at sporting events, thus we now equate the two.


But returning to this idea that protest disrespects the flag, soldiers, and veterans, I think works to distract from what is really going on. It hides the complicacy that we all have in perpetuating inequity in this country. It shifts the blame and the shame, that is hard to deal with once you realize you are wrong, and you do have it easier, and maybe there are times you were privileged because of the color of your skin. People don’t want to face that. It's very similar to fellow soldiers I know who refuse to believe that going to Iraq was bad. They don’t want their friends to have died for nothing, or for someone else's greed. They don’t want to know that the traumas they suffered or are still suffering are all based on lies. It's easier to not dig deep. It's easier to hate those dirty backwards hajis. Just like it's easier to hate Kaepernick and the NFL players protesting. They don’t have it hard. They don’t suffer. They are millionaires'. They hate America… But once you dig deeper. Once you pull the curtain back. You can learn. We need to learn. We need to listen. People of color in this country are pleading with us to listen. They want to love this country, but until it shows them some love, they will protest, and rightfully so. We need to listen to their stories, their plight, and their anger. We need to shut up and sit with it, process it, and not second guess it or try to explain it away. All Kaepernick and these NFL players are trying to do is pull back the curtain, but White America doesn’t want to look. I think cause they know it's an indictment of who they are and they are afraid of losing what they have.

         I am truly ashamed of those who are so angry with these players, because they refuse to listen, they choose to be willfully ignorant. But I am proud of the players for standing for what is right and for what they believe in. That is what I fought for. And that is what I still fight for. I too want to pull back the curtain. It has been a long process, from my days as a Young Republican to my days now as some radical leftist as many of my friends think… lol… But the important thing to take away from all of this is to take some time to learn about the issue. To listen to what is being said critically. Kaepernick as well as many NFL players have spent a lot of time with soldiers and veterans, to learn from them, as well as to explain why they are doing what they are doing. They are doing wonderful things in the community, and it should be their right to use the platform they have to stand up or take a knee for that matter. There is a long history of social activism and sports, especially around the issue of civil rights, from Muhammed Ali who was hated in his time, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists at the Olympics, who were also hated. Cause many folks want them to just "shut up and play… Shut up and entertain me boy." Well if that isn't just the most racist perspective, I don’t know what is. It was racist 50 years ago, and it is racist today. And we should realize, many of the problems of yesterday not only echo today, but also have impacts on today. Again, one must be willfully ignorant to not understand the ways in which slavery (which really wasn’t that long ago, many of our great grand parents knew folks from that era), which impacted Jim Crow laws (our grandparents era), that impacted the backlash against the Civil Rights era through unequal drug laws (our parents era), which has made a mess of our society through and through. But again, folks don’t want to learn. They don’t want to listen. Because it was hard for them, and they were poor too. Well that's also what happens when we privatize everything, commodify everything, and do not have any sort of social safety net, we all suffer. But again, we don’t all suffer the same. So stop taking the easy route of just hating folks, and accusing them of being unpatriotic.

         I think one of the best quotes I saw today (and I will leave it at that because I'm now ranting…) was by politician Jason Kander who said, "Patriotism isn't about making everyone stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to."

Please feel free to use this blog as a jumping off point for learning more… Here is a website that explores some of these issues and provides more resources on the topic.


50th Anniversary of Dr. King's "Beyond Vietnam" Speech

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech. I urge you to listen to it, or to read it. The argument he makes is very strong, and still very applicable to our world today. You could easily replace the words Vietnam with, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, or any of the other countries that we are militarily involved with throughout the Middle East; as we have put profits over human lives. We continue to perpetuate hate and advance militarism. This is not an issue of left or right, but rather an American sickness, as both major political parties have continually worked to expand wars; both parties have profited greatly from the military industrial complex, and; both parties have worked to make you afraid so that they could remain in power. 
    But it is not just the political system that has given consent to the expansion of militarism, but we are just as complicit in all the bombs dropped, the lives lost, and the continual fear evoked. Why are we complicit, because we look the other way, because we are comfortable, and because we like our cheap shit. Would you feel the same if you had to see the true cost? I would like to think not, but we live here with our heads in the sand, out of sight, out of mind. That's the beauty of his speech, he chooses to stop being silent, to stop being complicit. Dr. King decided to speak out against the war, even though it was massively unpopular for him to do so. Many within the Civil Rights Movement did not want him to give this speech. Many believed that it would distract from gains that were taking place, and that it may hurt those gains. Why worry about people on the other side of the planet? We face the same questions today. Why worry about people on the other side of the planet when we have a fascist like Trump constantly working to undermine the gains of the Civil Right Movement. This is the same challenge Dr. King faced, we too must not forget that this expansion of militarism is one of the most dangerous things we face today.
    The intersection of poverty, racism, and militarism that Dr. King is focused upon is a challenge that effects us all. While the first two would seem very apparent to most, we have utterly failed at addressing the last. Our everyday life has become embedded with militarism, from fashion to all the media we consume. Our non-critical attitude towards the military, how we still push this idea that we fight for freedom and democracy, and how we don't talk about the ways in which we reap what we sow. We forget how it is the poor we send to war, and how subordinated groups serve at higher rates, only to come home and be treated like shit, as it has always been. On the flip side, we kill other countries poor, we use racism to justify it, all while our rich get richer on both theirs and our dead. Dr. King saw this, and he stood up to militarism. I implore you to take a critical view, to stand up, to speak out! 

Here are 3 of my favorite quotes from his Beyond Vietnam speech!

"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism"

"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

You can read the full speech here:

And you can listen to the speech here:

My Week at Standing Rock

Trying to write about my experience of the week I spent at Standing Rock, North Dakota is difficult. There are so many emotions that come with what I saw and experienced, from inspiration and hope to despair and anger. In many ways this is one of the most important movements of my generation, whether we realize it or not. But this is not anything new, as this fight has been taking place for 500 years on this land as colonizers have long bullied, raped, and pillaged indigenous cultures. This is merely a continuation of the genocide that is taking place here in a place that we allegedly value ideas like equality, life, liberty, and justice. However, those values don't mean anything if we continue to support American Empire and toxic capitalism that has become embedded deep within our culture.

This blog will go through my week in Standing Rock, and my observations of the militarization that has taken place to stop any sort of democratic practices from the water protectors. Also, thank you very much for reading this reflection, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go listen to indigenous voices and definitely look into the history! I will provide some resources and links throughout and at the end of this post.

(There are many details I am intentionally leaving out of this summary, mostly to protect the camp and people who are still at the camp. More will be discussed on this later)

Preparing for the trek

I probably should have put off the trip as I was not originally in a good mind space to make this trip. I have been professionally frustrated with trying to find a tenure track position in a shrinking market, overburdened with work as I try to survive as an adjunct professor, all while trying to continue to be productive as a political theorist. I was doubly frustrated with my personal life as I was struggling with a relationship that I really hoped would be fruitful, only to have it come crashing down days before I left. But at the end of the day I thought that the trip would be a good distraction from it all, which in many ways was very selfish of me; but it was what it was, I had been planning this trip for a long time and was determined to go learn, listen, and stand with those in North Dakota.

I had spent the prior weeks talking with friends who had been up there and those who were heading up there. I had also spent a lot of time reading as many articles as I could, the Facebook pages of organizations working up there, and other bits of information I could get my hands on. I listened to my colleagues about some of the experiences they had working with different native groups and tribes. I spent time making sure that I knew what I was walking into, and how to be respectful to those I hoped to stand with and learn from. As a white male who studies and teaches in Ethnic Studies, I understand the difficult nature of my presence, but I also understand the importance of it as well. As with any work around issues of colonization, being a person with so many dominant identities means that I need to come with an open mind, heart, ears, and ready to follow the lead of those who are most impacted by these issues.

The trip was organized by fellow veterans I had worked with in the past, mostly folks I knew from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). More importantly to me, was one of my best friends Garett Reppenhagen, whom I had known long before my time in the military as we joined up to serve together. He and his family was spearheading this particular trip and we started a GoFundMe page, while also inviting other veterans we knew to join us. In all there would be about 6 of us veterans from Colorado IVAW heading up at the same time. While there we would meet up with a number of other veterans who have been there, as well as other veterans arriving. We brought with us cold weather camping gear that would be left for the veterans we knew who would be coming throughout the winter. We were also bringing up a wide assortment of donations from our different Colorado communities, from cold weather camping equipment to medical equipment. In essences we were laying the groundwork for future veterans and IVAW members to come and be a part of these actions for the upcoming winter.

Day 0 (Sunday November 20): Driving North

I assumed that we would be getting on the road early but with all that Garett and his family had to pack up, they didn't make it to my house in Fort Collins until about 5:30 PM. We had decided that because Garett was bringing his son that we would split the journey into two legs, so this evening we would be driving to Rapid City, South Dakota. The trip up was a mix of conversation about current events and catching up with each other. Because of my personal issues, I was a little withdrawn, but my gregarious nature pushed me to converse still; it was an emotional push and pull, that certain songs on the radio would draw me back into a dark personal space, but it was always the bonds of friendship that would refocus me to the task at hand.

As we crossed the South Dakota state line we started to hear reports of the police attacks on the peaceful water protectors that evening. A friend had sent me a live feed of action taking place. We watched as police shot tear gas into the crowd and sprayed people with water hoses in freezing temperatures. All along the police front you could see the flashes of shots being fired from the shotguns shooting beanbags, rubber bullets, and pepper-spray balls. I was also receiving pictures and messages from friends on the ground appalled by the brutality of violence from the police. The tactics of the police felt criminal to us, especially the use of fire hoses in freezing temperatures. While in the military I faced many high tension dangerous situations, but there were very specific rules of engagement that we were to follow. We followed an escalation of force model that mirrored the force being used against us. I know that many units followed this very liberally, I took it very serious (as did many I served with) as I did not wish to have unnecessary deaths on my conscious. The police here seemed to be the ones escalating the violence as they were the real threat.

We arrived to our hotel with heavy hearts and on edge of what we seemed to be entering. I made sure to check in with my friends on the ground and those I knew heading there. The situation seemed bleak, and it made us want to push through but we knew that hard charging into the situation may be more of a distraction to the work being done on the ground rather than helpful. So we uneasily went to sleep.

Day 1 (Monday, November 21): Arriving at Standing Rock

We met up with a number of other veterans and groups we knew from Colorado, down in the hotel lobby for breakfast. As we ate we shared the information we had heard from the night before, as well as different things we knew about entering the camp. It was at this time we heard about 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky who was hit by a concussion grenade, and may lose her arm due to it. Having used concussion gernades in Iraq, we knew that these were not to be used directly on groups of people as they could still cause damage, it was unclear the extent of the damage at the time, but it definitely rattled us to think of what the cops were doing to the people up there. Because cops had been pulling over people going into the camp we decided to split up and not have an obvious convoy rolling in, separate cars would be less suspicious. We would rally at the Prairie Knights Lodge and Casino, which is ran by the Standing Rock tribe; from there we would convoy in to the camp site.

Before heading up we needed to pick up firewood for our camp and to donate to those around us. We had found a listing on Craigslist for wood in Custer, SD, which was about 40 miles away. The man who owned the wood was an old retired white guy who called liberals 'special little snowflakes, who should just get over the election.' So we thought best not to tell him we were headed to Standing Rock as he seemed not to be very supportive of social justice issues. It was here that we knew we had entered enemy territory and that we would face much hostility to our cause, especially from white folks. The interesting thing here is he seemed very friendly besides a few snide remarks, that weren't really directed at us. Though I definitely got the feeling that had we said our destination, he would have told us to leave. We ended up getting a good amount of wood for $25, and headed back to Rapid City to meet up with another group of vets we knew who had left Colorado earlier that morning.

After all of our errands and lunch with the incoming group, we finally started heading North towards Standing Rock. We listened to different podcasts on the ride up but we were mostly thinking about what we were headed into. As we arrived to the casino the wind was whipping and the temperature was around 28°F. The thought of being hit by a water cannon in this weather was like a shot to the stomach, and hard to imagine why anyone use that tactic. Once everyone had arrived the group that had arrived first and set up camp led us to where we would be staying at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. As we got closer to the camp a brightness on the horizon grew. And as we crested the hill before the valley where the camp sat, we could see huge construction lights across the horizon, with many small fires spanning the valley floor. There was a clear demarcation between these spaces, whereas one was obviously the camp, the other clearly the construction zone.

Pulling in we were stopped by camp security, as it was our first time in the camp they wanted to make clear that there was to be absolutely no weapons, no drugs, and no alcohol allowed in the camp. We affirmed that we did not bring any of these with us. We knew before that these were the rules of the camp due to our research, but we weren't sure about others in our larger group, especially since veterans often turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, but we knew that we would make sure that if we saw something in our group we would address it. We drove down flag road and wound through a plethora of tents, campers, teepees, and people milling about. It was an amazing sight of how many people were there, but there would be thousands more coming over the next couple days.

We stopped on the northern edge of the camp where we could clearly see the construction lights on the hill. Two tents had already been set up for us, and we unloaded half of our gear, since we felt we may move in the morning. The main worry we had at the time was the security of the location, as we thought that perhaps because we could see the construction sites we would be camped out on the front lines, though the next day we would end up establishing our camp even closer to the front lines anyways (but we knew that in some ways, that was where we were needed most). We went to sleep with the sound of planes circling overhead and with the lights of the construction zone shining through the tents. We would later find out that the planes and helicopters would fly around the camp day and night. This is a form of psychological warfare meant to let people know they are there, they are watching, they are listening. Like the constant humming of US military drones across the Middle East, it creates paranoia as folks are constantly put in a state of fear.

Day 2 (Tuesday, November 22): On the Ground Running

We arose early in order to relocate our tents. After a bit of walking around I ran into a contact of ours with the organization IP3 (Indigenous People Power Project). Our tents were already close to their camp so we just moved them a bit closer. IP3  (The Indigenous Peoples Power Project) was running many art projects as well as spearheading the nonviolent direct action training. They asked us to help out with these trainings, as many of us had extensive experience with direct actions as well as with police and military tactics. These trainings took place daily and all who joined the camp were asked to attend these before going out and participating in different actions.

Another thing that new arrivals were asked to attend was the camp orientation. This meeting was crucial for those coming in as it worked to tell folks the expectations of the camp as expressed by the elders. This is especially important for the white folks coming in to stand in solidarity, as it was framed through a history of colonization and the ways in which white supremacy has worked to create a culture in which white folks always try to be at the center of things. They wanted to stress that everything here, all the actions, and all the work would be indigenous centered, and that it was not our place as outsiders and white folks to try and take charge. That doesn't mean that our skills would not be utilized, but it was our job first and foremost to listen and follow the lead of those who have been here for much longer and to respect the indigenous leadership and their wishes. The orientation was also meant to help new comers figure out the best ways to plug into the camp based on their skills and how they hoped to serve the camp, from the medical area or donations area to construction and winterization of camp, there was something for everyone. All that was asked was that you be considerate in that you give more than you take, especially if you were only going to be there for ashort amount of time. Finally they stressed that the actions were not protests but were to be conducted in peaceful prayer, this framing is meant to keep agitators out, and to maintain nonviolence as the key component of all actions. Also that they were not protestors, but rather water protectors, which again is an indigenous recentering.

One example of the importance of this orientation came just before I attended it. While observing the Sacred Fire at the camp, which acted as the main hub of the camp and where the elders primarily sat. In this area there is a microphone and speakers that is primarily used for official announcements, prayer, and songs. For a small offering such as tobacco, anyone can make an announcement or a respectful statement. I was listening to a Native woman grieve about the actions that took place on Sunday evening and said a prayer for a peaceful outcome to all of this that could end the pipeline. Once she was finished a white male in his mid-20's took the microphone and began to recount his actions on Sunday night. He told of grabbing an indigenous woman and stopping her from going to the front lines where the violence was taking place, and he recalled the anger in the young woman's eyes of him stopping her. He said that he didn't understand it until now, though he would probably never truly understand it because of his whiteness. He told of how sorry and regretful he felt about his actions. As he spoke my stomach turned and I got annoyed because he was taking the space of the Sacred Fire to ask for forgiveness and to express his sadness of his own ignorance. But this is exactly the sort of centering of whiteness that they want to avoid, he should not have been taking that space. As a friend and mentor once told me, 'sometimes you just gotta sit in your own shit, sit there and realize how bad it stinks.' In essence he should be reflecting on those thing, he should feel that way, but he needs to do that on his own time and in his own space; it was selfish and self-righteous of him to try and center himself and his own shit in that space. Similarly, there has been many white folks arriving at Standing Rock thinking and acting like this is some sort of Burning Man event, which is pretty sickening... 

After the orientation I headed back to our camp to see what the plan was for our group. One of the other things that had dominated our week was a documentarian who was joining us for our week here. The documentary was not specifically focused on Standing Rock, but rather on activism and the colliding of different movements, which was why we in IVAW were being followed for the week. In many ways it felt odd, but the group we were working with was spectacular and once there is more information about the documentary I will post about it, as I am sure it will be wonderful. But their presence was definitely felt and many felt uneasy with the camera around especially in camp, though they went through all the proper channels, as their was media passes needed for incoming media groups, as well as prior content from the different indigenous groups we worked with. There were times and spaces that they were denied access for security reasons, but for the most part they had access to most the places we went.

The first day that we helped with the direct action training we were tasked to be the police. We had spray bottles filled with water to simulate pepper spray, and we were authorized to lightly push, pull, and yell at people as necessary. Before we started running simulations, the crowd was given a brief legal training of their rights, what they should do if arrested, and what to expect afterwards. They were supposed to then get a chemical weapons briefing that was to go over what to do if they got pepper sprayed or were hit with tear gas, all things that had already been used, however the medic had not arrived yet. We then put them through simulation training, where we put them through a number of scenarios, with us as police to try and give them pointers on what to do when confronted by police during a direct action. We yanked people to the ground, tore them away from their friends, yelled obscenities at them, to put them in the mindset of what was needed to do a nonviolent direct action, however it wasn't enough, and we knew that the training needed to be shifted a bit to make it more realistic. Which we would implement the next day. At the training, I was also lucky enough to run into one of my favorite people from my graduate program in Hawai'I, which felt a bit magical to be able to run into friends who live so far away, while also showing the massive importance of this issue and how far it reaches.

After the training we received word that we would be needed to go into Bismarck to make a statement to the County Commissioners meeting; it was told to us that the Commissioners were not happy with the sheriff and his tactics from Sunday evening. We were asked primarily due to our veteran status as we looked to leverage it as many feel the credibility of veterans weighs heavy especially on conservative populations, who may discount native voices. We were also given a statement from the father of 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky to read to the County Commissioners. When we arrived there was one police officer at the entrance monitoring a metal detector. We were directed downstairs to the meeting already in session. No where on the agenda was anything about Standing Rock, nor about the events of Sunday evening. We waited and listened to the plans for the growing county, many of which seemed relevant to this struggle, though there was no input from the indigenous voices that lived in that area. As the meeting continued about a dozen police officers entered due to our presence.

Once the meeting was concluding we stood up and asked for an audience with the County Commissioners, and immediately a large man from the back ran up to the front and began whispering with the commissioners. It would seem that the man was the county's lawyer and advised them that they could hear us out but that they couldn't speak on the record so the meeting had to be ended. They relayed the message, closed the meeting, and we moved forward to have an informal conversation with them. We told them that we were veterans, and that we wished to address the militarism of the police force, their tactics, and read the letter from Sophia's father. After talking for a bit and reading the statement, we asked them to denounce and call for the resignation of the sheriff. While they appreciated what we had to say, they said that at this time they stood behind the sheriff. One of the vets in our group is a minister and she asked if they would pray with us. The prayer was very sharp and pointed, as anyone who would consider themselves a Christian would question their support of the tactics put forth by the Morton County Sheriff's Department.

A majority of our delegation then headed outside, with only 3 of us staying behind. I tried to push them to consider taking away funding from the sheriffs department if they continued to deploy military tactics with military gear, since the budget was in their purview. One of the commissioners informed me that there was a state law requiring them to make sure the police could do their job. I retorted that they could seriously reduce their budget so that they are not expanding the militarism being deployed. The commissioner I was talking with replied that 'the officers needed the equipment to ensure their safety.' This pushed me over the edge as I raised my voice letting him know that 'he didn't have to tell me about safety in hostile situations, I fought in a war, and these police are nowhere near the danger I faced. There is no reason for them to be using the equipment they have. If you come prepared for a war, a war will likely happen, cause once you are told you are a hammer, you begin to see everything as a nail.' At this point I turned around and walked out to a hall of about 8 police officers that were still waiting for us to leave. They didn't say anything, but once we headed out, they left.

Day 3 (Wednesday, November 23): Direct Action Training Redeux

The next day we had a number of meetings all over the camp with a bunch of different groups. This was a good time to explore the camp, which I will not share many details here besides some obvious facts (many of which have already been reported on). There was one hill that many had the best cell phone coverage on, called Facebook Hill. Up here you could find a number of different charging stations (one of which was a stationary bike that generated energy for a few plugs, but most others were solar). I didn't get much reception anywhere, so I avoided Facebook hill because it was colder and windier up there. I began to notice that something funny was going on with my cell phone, and I also began to hear that other people were having similar problems. For one thing, if your phone was not on airplane mode and you were using it would drain down to nothing, even if it was fully charged not long ago, but then as soon as you plugged the phone in it would jump back up to 60-70%. This may have been a side effect of the likely illegal monitoring technology that the sheriffs department has been using on the camp.

I then took a trip to the bridge that had been the center of the violence a few nights earlier. As I crested the hill it was as if I had returned to Iraq. Across the bridge there were concrete jersey barriers, concertina wire, an MRAP (Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicle), and Humvees . The police on the other side of the barrier were in riot gear. The weaponry they had visible was an LRAD (Long Range Accoustic Device) on top of the MRAP which shoots loud sonic blasts that can make one's brain feel scrambled, M4 assault rifles, shotguns, a sniper rifle, large pepper spray cans, and personal hand guns. A girl ventured out onto the bridge and from behind the barriers came a voice from the loud speaker stating, "Please get off the bridge, you are trespassing and you will be arrested." For the next 10 minutes a ridiculous back and forth between the young woman and the police would take place, with the police making statements like "what makes you think you can break the law," with the woman retorting things like "I didn't choose where I was born." Neither side really seemed to be making sense to me but the girl was not a threat. However, then about 10 police officers in riot gear came from behind the barrier and approached the bridge. This show of force was meant to be an example that anyone coming on to the bridge would be arrested. The girl eventually backed off and the police returned to the other side of the barrier. Supposedly the bridge was "off limits" for "safety reasons," as there were fires on the bridge on Sunday. According to the County Commissioners discussion from the night before, it would be off limits until tested by the Army Corps of Engineers, and supposedly they were 'afraid to check it out while protestors were in the area.' All of which seemed like utter nonsense and just a way to keep water protectors from getting anywhere close to pipeline operations.


The fact of the matter is the longer they can keep the water protectors at bay and away from the pipeline, the sooner they can complete the pipeline. While they are supposed to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to drill under the river, if they do not receive one they will drill anyways, because the only punishment would be a fine that is only a fraction of the profits they would be making from the pipeline. Unless the federal government physically steps in or the cost becomes too great due to other pressures, the pipeline will be completed. Personally I feel more drastic measures may be need to be taken to try and stop the construction of the pipeline, but only time will tell.

After returning from the bridge it was time to help with the direct action training for the day. This time around we made a few shifts in the training to make it more realistic. First and foremost the chemical training was held before the scenarios. This allowed for people to know what to do if sprayed by pepper spray as mentioned above. By doing this first we were able to tell them, 'if you get sprayed by our water bottles you have to go through the steps you just learned.' The IP3 Trainers also brought in extra elements such as elder roles of folks they had to implement into their action, and had to protect in the scenarios. This all shifted the tactics they took towards us as a group, which seemed to make them more effective, even though we made it more difficult for them as they had to go through more steps if sprayed by our water bottles. Overall these small shifts in the training made it more realistic and helped construct better plans of action for any confrontations that may happen.

The rest of the day was filled with meetings and planning different actions. At the evening fire we convened a meeting of the small community we had formed of veterans and others from Colorado that we were camping around. This was suggested by one of the other informational meetings so that folks could exchange information. One bit of information that surprised me was a rumor that the camp was about to be raided and that women and children should flee to the other side of the river. This made absolutely no sense to me as more and more people were flooding into the camp with the holiday weekend approaching. The amount of police needed to clear the camp would have to be huge, and I felt that pictures and videos of police raiding the camp the night before the Thanksgiving holiday would have a huge backlash (especially for those who know the true brutal history of Thanksgiving. While much of the paranoia in the camp is justified, especially in light of the history of treatment towards Native Americans, I felt this rumor was either very irresponsible or something that was being spread by an infiltrator from the police or private security forces (as there is very likely many infiltrators and planted agitators within the camp, meant to hurt the cause of the water protectors). By spreading this rumor it works to divide the camp, perpetuate chaos, and scare people away. Perhaps it was meant to help prepare people just in case, but the way it was spread felt problematic and dangerous.

Day 4 (Thursday, November 24-"Thanksgiving Day"): Taking Turtle Island

Snow had fallen and the morning was very cold. The day started much as the previous evening ended, with much confusion and paranoia. As I took a group of former students and the documentarian to the bridge to talk about the militarization of the bridge, I saw some folks from my neighboring camp going out on the bridge. Having seen what happened the day before I sought to advise them of what would happen if they stayed out there. A small group of folks next to me said that they had heard the police had been authorized to use "live rounds" on water protectors. This was again dangerous misinformation as it sought to make us afraid; it made no sense to me as it would seem this would also cause a huge backlash if someone were to be shot by a live round (Kent State comes to mind).

I returned to camp and saw hundreds of folks heading towards the bridge. It seems an action was planning to take place there. My group was staging for another action at Turtle Island, where the drilling pad is. We had heard there would be a couple actions so we figured the bridge action that was starting was going to be a distraction for our action. All of a sudden chaos began, men on horses began riding through camp yelling we were being raided and women and children should head to the dome, people began returning from the bridge saying an elder at the bridge said there would be no actions today. Things felt chaotic and I had heard that there definitely was supposed to be an action at the bridge. It seemed that infiltrators had disrupted the flow of the day.

We gathered anyways, ignoring the chaos, and remained focused on our task at hand. Our group had been asked to be security for the event, to contain the march out to Turtle Island, ensure the Indigenous Youth Council was in the lead of the march, and that they were protected once we crossed over onto Turtle Island, but most importantly was to rout out any agitators. So anyone who was getting violent or yelling we would go to tell them that we are here for peaceful prayer so unless you were singing prayer you should act in silence.

We marched out in silence, as we went around the camp the Council stopped and blessed each of the sweat lodges in the camp. The crowd slowly grew as we went through the camp, and marching in silence felt very powerful. As we got closer to Turtle Island we saw that there was already people there. A hand full of folks had already crossed over on small boats. There was about a dozen police at the top of the hill in riot gear. With the folks there already crossing over there was a bit of a ruckus and the original plan went out the window. Prayer chants rang out as more and more people arrived. From above the police were lined up, one speaking into a microphone telling people not to cross over. Had the action on the bridge not so quickly dispersed we may have been able to actually take over the whole island as our numbers were growing so fast, but because it had been broken up the police were able to get truckloads of reinforcements. One of the groups at the action had constructed a bridge to go across the water, it was brilliantly constructed and allowed many to cross the river. But as more police arrived I think many realized that it would not be wise to try and advance much further. The police had the high ground and we had little ways to retreat besides back into the icy water if they were to open up the hoses, drop teargas down the hill, shoot their rubber bullets, or use their pepper-spray, all of which they were clearly displaying.

We held strong for about 6 hours, all peaceful, all prayerful. At times the police would say something stupid, which would rile up the crowd, and while there was often a snappy retort back at the police, most of the water protectors remained calm and sang songs of prayer. There came a point when I think the police realized that the people here were not going to commit any acts of violence, and it being a holiday for them, some of the police seemed to be sent away. In many ways it felt like a win, even if it was a minor one. Those on the island slowly started returning from the island, with their heads high feeling that they had made a small difference. Everyone then formed a massive circle with everyone holding hands. It was probably the largest circle I had been a part of as over a thousand people held hands for over half an hour. The Youth Council went around the circle praying and blessing everyone in the circle. They then went to the center and sang a closing prayer.

It was a long day which shifted from a bit of panic and chaos to a feeling of hope and connectedness. The vets I was with came together to have an after-action review so that we could discuss the actions of the day (this is a common practice in the military). We then went to meetings to find out what would be going on the next day. All we knew about the next day was that our actions would be in Bismarck for Black Friday. Once we had finished our meetings we decided to head to the casino for a drink.

Day 5 (Friday, November 25): Black Friday in Bismarck

We woke up to another cold morning. Being on my feet all-day everyday made my ankles hurt quite a bit. Years of rucking in the military mixed with being a big guy has given me some foot and ankle issues where it takes about an hour of walking around to be able to walk normally. So I hobbled over to our meetings for the day. The action was to be a flash mob at the shopping mall in Bismarck. It was only going to last about 15 minutes, as we were going to form concentric circles all sitting in prayer. We were then going to march to the hotels hosting the folks working for the pipeline. Historically these were called "man camps" and had many issues of violence against women in and around them, however because of the cold they were in hotels, but we wanted to highlight this history of violence. The plan was to be in the mall between 12-12:30, the action would start at 12:45, we would march at 1, hold an action at the hotels till 2-2:30ish, head back to camp. It was all supposed to be fast and simple.

At our meeting we heard that there would be no more actions that weekend, and since we were planning to leave early the next morning, we instead decided to head back once the actions were over that evening and stay in Rapid City again. Because of this we started packing up. With the arrival of new folks, mixed with packing, we fell behind and got a late start out to Bismarck, and to top everything off we needed gas. Because we were so behind, we ended up getting to the mall around 12:50. As we were walking in we saw dozens of police, and one of our allies grabbed us before we went in. One small circle had formed but before it could get any larger police swarmed and started arresting people. Some of the folks arrested were merely profiled, if you were native they scooped you up, if you had muddy boots they scooped you up, if you had any signs of camping they scooped you up. Some of our group had made it in and police had just told them to leave. The most disheartening part was the reaction of the public, primarily that of white folks. Many yelled and cursed at the water protectors, many screamed nonsensical things like "Blue Lives Matter," all in all it was a disgusting display of ignorance.

Thankfully no one in our group had been arrested so we decided to meet up at the Barnes & Nobel across the street. While walking over, a truck full of white men yelled at us "you better run before you get arrested." They followed my buddy as he walked to his car, but he slipped them between the rows of cars. Even in the Barnes & Nobel it felt unsafe as many folks stared at us, knowing we were water protectors. Talking with a number of the groups, we decided to wash the rest of the events since so many were arrested. Those who were staying would try and find out where they were taking those arrested, the rest of us headed back to camp. We later heard they transported many of those arrested up to 3 hours away so as to not make it easy for people to post bail.

When we returned we had heard about two significant pieces of news. First was the wiring off of Turtle Island. Like at the bridge they had used triple stranded concertina wire, which is very difficult to get through without cutting yourself up very badly. This was meant to prevent any future actions of crossing the river and demonstrating on Turtle Island. The second big piece of news was the deployment of 2000 veterans to stand in solidarity with the people at Standing Rock. This deployment was being led by Wesley Clark Jr. son of famous general, Wesley Clark.

Being a part of a group of veterans who was currently there, many of us felt a bit apprehensive of this new large incoming group of veterans. While we know how affective this could be, especially since it was being shared on social media across the country, we worried that these vets would come in with little regard for what the tribal elders actually wanted. Our group had spent a lot of time making important connections with different indigenous groups around the camp before we even arrived. Another factor was that being in IVAW gave us a lot of experience with activism and nonviolent direct action. Many of the vets who would be coming to this "deployment" did not. What would happen when faced with a violent police force? Would they respect the rules of the camp? What were their intentions? We discussed all this before we left and those who were able to stay were tasked with trying to reach out to this group to try and make sure that everyone was on the same page, and more importantly they were to work to build a ground work for this influx of veterans in accordance of what the tribal elders wanted. Since I left many of the vets who were able to stay have done a lot of work to turn that apprehension into excitement as they are building bridges between the incoming veterans and the indigenous tribes who have long been here in this fight.

We said our goodbye hugs and well wishes. Leaving was difficult as I wanted to stay and continue to stand with those fighting to protect the sacred water. I left with so many mixed emotions: anger at the situation and at the police, sadness at what felt like futility, hope in seeing so many wonderful and different come together, spiritually high in participating in something so sacred, and so many more I can't express in words.

I ended up returning to Colorado with two former students, who I was very proud and honored to see and spend time with. We spent the trip to Rapid City talking about what we had just experienced, what we saw, felt and hoped. The trip went quickly as we convoyed with another car. At the hotel, I jumped in the shower having not been in one for a week. The cleansing of the hot water felt so good. My mind circled the idea of water, what was being fought for, how important it was. The people of Bismarck knew this, which is why they didn't want the pipeline to cross their water source, why they would think it's ok to push the project down river which would primarily effect Native Americans appalled me. The clean water we take for granted, is being fought for, but we continue to look the other way, let our environment be more and more destroyed. Water is truly life, can you imagine a world without it? I can't… Why should it only be accessible by the rich when it is such a necessity? I finished my shower, still smelling of campfire but feeling much better. We ended the night at a nearby bar, trying to enjoy ourselves but there was definitely the tension of our experience on a back burner.


The next day we decided to drive to the Crazy Horse memorial before heading back to Colorado. The memorial, while nowhere near completed, is already an amazing site to see. It will be one of the biggest memorials in the world. The history is interesting, but I think what is more impressive at the moment is the museum of Native American artifacts; they tell a long, beautiful, proud, but also sad history. It would be easy to spend a week in there looking at and reading about each artifact. There is so much history. We ate at the restaurant there and had an amazing lunch of a Indian fry bread taco. At lunch we heard about the Army Corp of Engineers decision to 'close the Oceti Sakowin Camp' on December 5th, ironically Col. Custer's birthday. How they would do so is still unclear, but it all seems like a bad idea.

The ride from Crazy Horse to Fort Collins was mostly ruled by music as we listened to my phone while chatting the whole way home. It was good to be home, but I still wanted to be in North Dakota. Sleeping in my bed felt amazing, but my mind was on those laying on the cold hard ground. My heart and mind is still there, wanting to return but not knowing when I can. It has taken me almost a week to write all this down. I hope that it has helped you understand a bit more, to know how difficult things are on the ground there, and maybe inspired you to get involved and to speak out against these injustices. Below is resources to get more informed and ways you can get involved.

MNI WICONI (Water is Life)



Places to get information and where to donate:

Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Standing Rock Tribe:

Sacred Stone Camp:


Other ways to get involved (CLICK HERE)