It’s a whole new kind of “deployment.”
Veterans from all over the country are converging in Tennessee for the “About-Face Action Camp,” preparing to use their military skills to support communities under attack: by Big Oil, by ICE, by emboldened white supremacist groups, and by Trump himself.
“Never have we seen so many veterans wanting to translate the skills to serve frontline communities fighting back against Trump’s destructive platform,” said Matt Howard, a Marine Corps veteran who deployed twice to Iraq.
Howard is the Co-Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a grassroots organization of post-9/11 active duty service members and veterans. IVAW was originally formed in 2004 as a space for vets to speak out against, and rectify their involvement in, the unpopular and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the 13 years since IVAW formed, the group has covered a lot of ground, organizing around reparations for Iraq, health care for returning service members, and against the redeployment of vets living with PTSD. Increasingly, IVAW is expanding on what it means to be “anti-war,” by focusing on the root cause of war—militarism—and turning their sights to related symptoms of militarism, including militarized police, Islamophobia, and even climate change.
Most recently, IVAW was making headlines for another “deployment:” heading to Standing Rock to support Indigenous water protectors facing violent police repression as they tried to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thousands of vets showed up, “because we were called,” Howard notes. “We wanted to be of service to this Indigenous-led movement.”
In North Dakota, veterans found new use for old skills: knowledge of scouting, rapid-response evacuation plans, and security patrols, experience as medics and with secure communications.
Taken out of a militarized context, veterans found, these skills can be crucial for nonviolent resistance, especially now, as the U.S. becomes an increasingly militarized society. Nonviolent protests are routinely met with riot police wearing body armor and wielding tear gas; heavily-armed immigration agents force their way into homes to drag out family members. And under Trump, these expressions of militarism − the Muslim ban, the border wall, the refugee crisis, and the daily reality of police violence − are an increasingly common part of everyday life for millions of people in America.
Standing Rock was a major turning point for IVAW, and the group wanted to do more. “As people who have perpetrated violence, whether directly or indirectly,” says Howard, “activist veterans − with their experiences being on both sides of war − are uniquely positioned to intervene in these struggles, and to train others to do so.”
And that’s exactly what they’re preparing to do, starting, fittingly, this Memorial Day weekend. A contingent of vets will gather at the Highlander Center in Tennessee—where Rosa Parks trained in the lead-up to the Montgomery bus boycott—for IVAW’s first ever non-violent direct action camp. With daily sessions like “Basic Un-Training” and “De-Formation,” vets will turn their skills on their heads: learning to use skills like situational awareness, threat assessment, scouting and security to serve the growing resistance.
The camp trainers come from the illustrious Ruckus Society, a 21-year-old grassroots training outfit led by women of color. Indigenous veterans who were also at Standing Rock will be serving as camp trainers, including Krystal Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne woman who served in the Army for 10 years. For Two Bulls, the camp is about more than direct action: “I hope to support the healing and learning of fellow veterans in how to translate our unique skill sets into service to the movement,” she says, “and truly learn what it means to serve The People.”
For Howard, the “about-face” part is key.
“It’s a chance to translate our skillset—from one based on violence to one in service of resilience—and in doing so, re-humanize ourselves and each other.”