It was a surreal occurrence. There I was in the smokey alcove, the center of bustling traffic for the rec center, hugging a stranger and crying like an eight year old with a skinned knee. People were ambling by or just standing there, silent out of respect for Sacred Tears, smoking cigarettes and occasionally holding the door for those in a rush to get to wherever they were going.
The nose piece to my glasses had broken when the man embraced me but I didn't care. This show of support and understanding from a stranger was too important to be distracted by trivialities.
It was less than an hour after I had let go of the man, finished a cigarette, and walked inside that I was approached by Sandy Tolan, a journalist for the LA Times who had just finished interviewing Walid.
Still recovering, I spoke to him about my time there, rehashing the events of the past few days with a slightly more tempered passion than I'd had just an hour before. He could tell my honesty, as I was swearing with every third word, but the spirit of where I was coming from was not lost on him.
Strangely, the article still made Wesley Clark Jr. look like a good guy when, in fact, he's a horrible human being that casually put people's lives at risk for his own glory. Hell, if he were any more of a scumbag, America would make him president.
After the interview was finished, I shook the man's hand and left to check the board that had requests for egress. Still nothing.
As I was walking back to my sleep station, Virgil approached me, gesturing over to another man, roughly six feet tall, medium build, and a haircut you could set your watch by. He was also a fellow Marine and a member of the Sioux tribe.
"Robert, meet Brent. He's the guy that drove us here."
I started praying to every god I could name and even those I couldn't. My faith in anything military was hanging by an exposed nerve and at that time, I didn't know the man.
"Hey, brother. I've got a sob story for you."
He smiled awkwardly, knowing our predicament already.
"Man, I don't know if I'll have room or not. The car's pretty packed and Eagle Butte is four hours out of the way for us. We can discuss it later, but I can't make any promises. What I can do is take you back to camp to get the rest of your gear. We'll be in a hurry, though. You'll have about an hour."
My heart fell into my stomach. I'd never get out of this place. I wouldn't be able to get home in time to move my stuff to a storage unit, which means everything I owned would be thrown out or auctioned. The rise of panic crept up my spine. I needed my alpha-wave stimulator, which just so happened to be with my gear at camp. At least he could get us there.
About thirty minutes later and I was petting Old Dog, who was lying on the cushioned mat on which I slept. Walid sat down and began to give me the rundown of his next heroic endeavor.
"I volunteered to take supplies to the one of the tribes, so that's the first thing I need to do."
One of the things the Marine Corps instills is to never leave a man behind. If he was going, I'd have to go as well.
"Are you fucking serious?! We don't have time for that! We're on Brent's schedule and if we don't make it back in time, what's to stop him from leaving us?!"
"Alright! I get it! This will be the last time."
I rolled my eyes and clenched my teeth. I wanted to help out as much as anyone else, but my mission had changed due to the circumstances. The phrase "every man for himself" hung heavy over me.
By the time we showed up to Sacred Stone, the snow had died down but the wind had endured, once again cutting through cloth like a Wusthof. I took one last video to soak in the camp and its immensity.
Once Brent parked in an area close to where we'd placed our packs, reminding us of the time limit, Walid and I embarked on the mission to get the supplies to the appropriate people. These were pretty basic supplies. Socks, food, hand warmers, etc.
Fast forward an hour and we still hadn't found the place we were looking for. Eventually, Walid told me to go get my stuff and leave him to find the people we were supposed to help. I turned around and started walking away, then stopped. Never leave a man behind. I waited as patiently as time would allow.
Finally, and with the necessity to get our gear, we made an executive decision and handed off the supplies to random people. If we couldn't help the right people, we'd still be helping someone.
Once we finally made it to the place we'd left our packs, I rummaged through mine to get that alpha-wave stimulator, desperate to have that security blanket in the tumult of the journey. It, along with my phone charger, had been taken out of my pack and were now in the hands of someone upon which I wish horrible things. In other words, someone had stolen them.
Honestly, I recognize it's my own fault. I shouldn't have trusted anyone. I shouldn't have relied on the decency of people. But damned if that isn't a lesson I'm loathe to learn.
Once we got our things together, we rushed over to Brent's car, where he was putting on armor.
"So... what's up, buddy?"
"The Water Protectors are trying to cut down the razor wire. Apparently there's three police for every protester, all armed."
I put on my armor as quickly as I could, Walid doing the same, and the three of us marched toward the hill and the gun-toting bullies that were waiting for us. Virgil had to stay behind, as he didn't have any armor to speak of, nor boots to grip the icy ground.
We marched, adrenaline rushing through me, my bipolarity kicking into overdrive, my mind getting weird in violent, random ways.
As we stormed toward our destiny, people began walking toward us and the camp. Brent eventually asked one of them what was happening.
"It's over for now. We might be back tonight. There's no telling."
The three of us looked at one another, dejected, hesitant to turn back and face the destiny that had fallen so short of expectation.
As we were walking back, Walid decided to chime in.
"Well, if we stay here we can go out with them."
That was it. I'd had enough. I already felt guilty for having to leave. I was done explaining myself.
"I swear to Christ, I will fucking leave you."
He was quiet until we got back into the car. In time, he looked over at me and said "I assume that because you're not Christian, you didn't mean that."
I rolled my eyes.
"You remember forty five minutes ago how you told me to leave you and get my gear?"
"Did I leave you?"
He smiled a little, knowing the principle of looking after one another held a higher sway than anything waiting on me back home. Just barely, but enough.
Brent was on the phone while we drove back to the rec center. Once he hung up, he looked at us in the rear-view mirror and blessed us with a single sentence. A sentence that bored a hole through my doubt in all things military.
"I'll take you guys back to your car tomorrow morning."
Relief poured over me in steady waves, the sense of security I had abandoned returning in full force.
By the time we'd returned to the rec center, the dynamic had shifted to a kinetic fervor. Men weren't walking so much as storming, the focus shifting from cordial benevolence to preparing for peaceful battle. A kid in his late teens, tattoos all over his face, found purchase in the smoking alcove, his enthusiasm for purpose overriding his ability to think clearly. In retrospect, that might be why his face was covered in tattoos. But I understand unbridled passion well enough, especially at such a young age.
I did my best to convince him not to dive into Sacred Stone without having the equipment he needed, such as boots, cold weather gear, a sleeping bag, etc. I tried to explain that he would be more of a hindrance than a help were he to go down as a cold casualty.
As impetuous as anyone unfamiliar with proper guidance, he wouldn't have it. I let it slide out of the understanding that once you reach that point, you have to make your own mistakes.
Around that same time, one of the rez dogs was denied access back inside, those in the alcove pushing it whenever it tried to get back inside. It was driving me mad, the idea that this poor animal was forced out into the icy cold. One of the native women, late forties and five-foot-nothing, spoke with an authority that comes from slight stature.
"Why is this dog being kept outside?!"
My heart began beating slightly faster. It wasn't my place to say anything, but damnit, this dog needed help.
"He bit the puppy inside. He's not allowed back in."
Bless the woman, she said exactly what I needed to hear from her; something that reinforced my heartened expectations.
"That's not how we treat our people. Let him in."
If I think about that too much, I'll tear up.
Exactly what I'd needed at the time.
Later that night, as the energy waned with the exit of most of the men, I laid on my sleeping mat, tamping down the inclination to drop everything, put on my armor, and head to the front lines. The kid with the tattooed face had stayed, Walid having taken the initiative to further reinforce how ignorant and dangerous the kid's mentality was. The kid wasn't alone, though. The heat of missed destiny was soaking into me like a grease burn.
The mantra continued in my head.
"You need to get home. You need to get home. You need to get home."
Eventually, I decided to take action to hinder my thoughts, immediately trading all of my armor to Josh in exchange for two cigarettes and a handshake. He'd find more use for it than I had, at least for the time being.
From there, I went back to my mat, where a fourth dog was waiting. I'd steadily been collecting affection from the furry bastards and apparently word had gotten around. Anything to sedate the inner warrior hacking away at the reality of responsibility.
Once Josh and I shared one last smoke, I returned to my mat, eager for the morning. When dawn finally came, I was met by several of the dogs that had apparently been waiting for me to wake up. I poured more love on them, then Walid and I staged our gear outside, waiting with bated breath to feel the progress of our mission to return home.
Once Brent arrived in his SUV, the relief was palpable. We loaded everything up, said a few quick goodbyes, then hopped into the warmth and comfort. As we left the parking lot, one of the rez dogs had found a way to escape, running after us. As arrogant or narcissistic as it might sound, I felt as though it were trying to catch up to me. Nothing breaks my heart like disappointing animals. After all, they're always honest.
Once we were on the road, Brent recognized the importance of the monuments that had been set up as homage to Sitting Bull and Standing Rock.
Three hours later and we arrived at Eagle Butte and my car, tires slightly flat from the cold but nonetheless functional. Walid and I said goodbye to Brent and Virgil, our gratitude to both of them too much to sum up into words.
As we drove through the immensely flat big-sky-country, listening to podcasts and watching the world fly by, I looked over toward movement out of the corner of my eye. Broad wings had lifted a bird I had never expected to see in the wild. It was a bald eagle. And with that, portions of me began to ache.
The American Nightmare, where history is told by manipulative victors. Where genocide and gentrification are simply speed bumps toward the rich getting richer. Where inalienable rights are alien. Where a lack of education is glorified and civil progress is vilified.
Flashes of my time in Afghanistan began pulsing through my brain, where friends of mine were tortured before they were killed for a country that would screw them over as quickly as acknowledge them, all the while yelling "SUPPORT THE TROOPS!" at the top of its lungs.
And yet hope springs eternal. Hope for progress, change, and growth. Hope for equality and the right to an unfettered pursuit of happiness. Hope that one day those that have authority, those that are armed to the teeth and filled with unrighteous indignation can know what the rest of us would consider a universal understanding.
Then a quote rose into my mind, taken out of context but as poignant as words can be.
"I do protest I never injured thee, but love thee better than thou canst devise, till thou shalt know the reason of my love."
And with that, I drove home.
I would like to thank the following people for making this happen:
And a special thank you to Andrew Cooke, who did a fantastic job editing my photographs. Thank you all!!!