The Veteran Service Corps’ Birth at Standing Rock
Native Americans in the U.S. Military
If you were to ask me about Native Americans in the military, my first thought would be the Navajo code talkers during World War II. In recent years, their contribution to America’s World War II victory has finally been publicly recognized.
Less well-known are the Native American code talkers in World War I (primarily Choctaw language), a time when Native Americans were not yet considered U.S. citizens.
While writing this article about Veteran Service Corps, I was surprised to learn that Native Americans have the highest percentage of people serving in the military of any American ethnic group. Their patriotism exists despite the way they have been treated for the past 400 years and the fact that full citizenship for Native Americans didn’t come until 1924.
Standing Rock and Veteran Service Corps
Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff in late 2016 brought Native Americans and veterans together. I was following news of the Native American resistance to that oil pipeline during a harsh South Dakota winter.
I remember being deeply moved when I read that over 2,000 military veterans traveled to Standing Rock from all over the country in December 2016. Their goal was to stand between the National Guard and the pipeline protestors, who had been subjected to tear gas, rubber bullets and security dog bites. Probably worst of all, the protestors were sprayed by water cannons in below freezing temperatures.
“We imagine a just, equitable world where the passion and talents of veterans are fully leveraged to improve the lives of all citizens, to create lasting solutions, and to build capacity in others.”
Vision of the Veteran Service Corps
The power of that experience led some of the veterans who were at Standing Rock to found the Veteran Service Corps (VSC) in February 2017. VSC was founded as a humanitarian aid organization, with a vision of working with veterans and whole communities to lift up everyone.
As their first major project, members of the VSC have committed to working with the veterans and community of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation on health, housing, youth programs and other issues.
VSC Member Stories
One VSC member, Sergeant Ross McKee, served as a U.S. Army Ranger from 1999 to 2010, including a tour in Iraq where he was wounded in combat. Being a part of VSC has renewed the strong sense of brotherhood he felt for his comrades in the military.
Sergeant McKee says that working with the Lakota and experiencing their culture, such as the sweat lodge ritual, has helped him deal with PTSD. Providing humanitarian help for Lakota youth programs has also been healing for him.
“Working with VSC and the tribe has restored my faith in humanity. VSC is a great place for veterans to go if they want to find a purpose. You can make a difference in people’s lives, all while regaining the camaraderie you had while you were in the service.”
Sergeant Ross McKee, U.S. Army Ranger 1999-2010
Another veteran active with VSC is Jacqui White Hat. Growing up as a Lakota girl, she learned the principles of justice, integrity, responsibility and courage. At age 22, she enlisted in the Air Force and served as a medic for 17 years. She says that serving in the military made her strong. It helped her learn to speak up and be a leader. She is now bringing her leadership and medical skills in service to the Lakota people through the Veteran Service Corps.
“Anytime a medic hears a cry for help, we have to answer that cry or it’s just gut-wrenching. I answered the call to veterans to protect the rights of the people. That’s what will always keep me alive in my darkest times. That’s who I am.”
Wahancankayapi Win (She Shields the People Woman) – Jacqui’s Lakota name
Veteran Service Corps projects
Here are current projects that are dedicated to helping an entire community, from the youth to the elders:
- “Rehabilitating housing for homeless veterans on the Cheyenne River Lakota reservation as well as safe housing for women and children;
- “Restoring the tribe’s veterans center;
- “Renovating an old Headstart building into the Cherry Creek Youth Center, creating a gathering and enrichment place for youth in Cherry Creek, a community with the highest teen suicide rate in the United States.” Source: VSC website 3/17/2018
The Veteran Service Corps is now seeking funding for a program to teach veterans, including Lakota veterans, to become certified solar power installers. The goal is to train them with an in-demand job skill that can transform their lives for the long-term and to eventually create energy self-sufficiency at the reservation.
The Veteran Service Corps is still a young organization. They have built upon the personal relationships developed during the Standing Rock protest to create a focused, long-term commitment that brings healing to VSC members as well as help to veterans, families and youth on the Cheyenne River Lakota reservation.
As a result of this relationship, the tribe has given the VSC stewardship of a 29-acre ranch that was previously neglected. The VSC is using it as their National Operations and Training Center for growth of future community programs.
You can learn more about the Veteran Service Corps or make a donation to their work at their website: https://www.vscamerica.org/.