My Duty as a Veteran: Protect the Arctic Refuge

By Demond Mullins, PhD, Former Armor Crewman/ Infantryman

Last week, I came to Washington D.C. to begin another mission to protect our nation and uphold the oath I took when I entered the military years ago. This was a different mission from others. I wasn’t dressed in my military uniform. Instead I was in a suit and tie and ready to meet those who have the power to protect one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The people I was representing were the same as those from past missions — Americans. More specifically, I was there to speak for the people who rely on the Arctic Refuge, currently under threat of total destruction.

The Refuge spans nearly 20 million miles in northern Alaska and encompasses a coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea. This pristine territory is home to one of the world’s last large intact ecosystems and to the Gwich’in, who have relied on the Arctic Refuge since time immemorial.

The congressional staffers I met with asked why an Iraq combat veteran, former armor and infantryman would dedicate so much time for the Arctic Refuge. The reason was very personal.

Earlier this summer, I joined five military veterans on an expedition in the Arctic Refuge. We canoed more than 100 river miles on the Canning River. Words cannot describe the experience of spending weeks as part of a self-sustaining team of veterans, brothers and sisters in arms, working together to explore the Refuge’s natural gifts.

Experiencing the Arctic exceeded all our expectations; it gave us time to contemplate, connect and heal. The expedition underscored the importance of building community, protecting the environment, and extending the oaths of service we once took to the civilian domain, where the threats from Big Oil warrant us to exercise a new definition of “national defense.”

In 2004 I served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was 22 years old and deeply suspicious about the war, but I fulfilled my duty because I took an oath to do so. At that time, proper equipment was unavailable to my unit to keep us safe, and yet I stood as I vowed. When I convoyed from Kuwait to Baghdad, for several days in a Humvee with no floor, watching the desert road like a treadmill beneath me, I stood as I vowed. When I experienced contact with the enemy for the first time while supporting the cordon of the first battle of Fallujah, I stood as I vowed. When I was charged with policing the first democratic elections in Iraq against the threat of suicide bombers, I stood as I vowed. When Improvised Explosive Devices terrorized my unit again and again, I stood as I vowed. Even when I returned home and saw my fellow veterans struggle with depression, suicide, addiction, unemployment, and unfavorable veteran care policies and practices, I stood as I vowed.

And now as I help all Americans understand why we must protect the Arctic Refuge, I again stand as I vowed. Protecting the Arctic Refuge is an extension of my service in defense of the nation.

Last Friday, after my congressional meetings, I stood in front of the White House with conservationists, Native leaders and activists representing indigenous rights and disaster-torn areas of the Gulf of Mexico. We demonstrated to protect our natural environment — because we understand protecting public lands is about patriotism and human rights.

Many Americans accept the idea that the oil and gas industry’s reckless profit-seeking actions are necessary. This is untrue and terribly anachronistic. As I watched powerful women — like Princess Daazhraii Johnson, a Gwich’in woman who flew from Alaska to stand in solidarity with other tribes — speaking on Pennsylvania Avenue with the profile of the White House behind them, I understood that their story is our story. And we should protect our right to clean air, water and environment just as we support these indigenous leaders’ rights to free speech.

Police seized me because I stood in solidarity with these people — brothers and sisters — fighting again in defense of the nation.

It’s time we have a radical new conversation about what defense of the nation means. For me and millions of others, including veterans, it means stopping abuses that hurt fellow Americans. It means putting an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline, fighting for water quality in cities like Flint, Michigan and saving one of the world’s last great ecosystems in the Arctic Refuge.

We cannot simply hope that politicians will make the correct decisions on our behalf — we must take action. Demand they #KeepItInTheGround and invest in cleaner sources of energy. And contact your representatives and tell them to “Keep it in the ground” and sponsor bill HR239 to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Demond Mullins, PhD

Former Armor Crewman/ Infantryman

NYARNG 101st Cavalry

(Attachment to 1st Cavalry in OIF 1/2)

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Indiana University of Pennsylvania