The so-called “resistance” to Donald Trump’s administration has been growing since the day of his inauguration, taking on anything from LGBTQ rights and immigration policy to health care, racial justice, prison reform, and imperialist foreign policy. In our Front Lines series, Fusion speaks to activists leading the charge in all kinds of ways.
Mark Sanderson is a 32-year-old army veteran who served 10 years in the army during the war in Iraq. After deploying to Standing Rock to assist #NoDAPL protesters, he founded Veterans Respond, a group connecting young veterans to environmental causes across the country.
So what exactly does Veterans Respond do?
We’re a veteran volunteer humanitarian aid organization. We try to identify areas of social or economic injustice and we work to develop a plan to provide aid. We were born out of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock movement in December, and we noticed that vets have a desire to continue to serve their community, and we just ran with it—and not only that, but that veterans heal by serving their community. Like, this is really changing veterans’ lives, to be able to get out and provide a service, whether it’s in Standing Rock or their local community.
Are you intentionally pursuing progressive causes? Do most of your members swing that way politically?
Our number one value is environmental stewardship: We are definitely an environmentally progressive organization. Our platform is that the green energy revolution is the way forward, and not only for our country. We truly believe that it can be used to end veteran homelessness, and end veteran unemployment as well. We want it to be here now, and to put veterans to work. We don’t get involved in the political leadership of the country. But it just so happens that right now we believe the best way to serve the people of this country is to bring awareness to environmental and social justice causes.
Do you think your generation of veterans is different from others?
Not really. I mean, there’s a lot to be said about the Vietnam generation. I think we carry a lot of the same scars. In Vietnam, there was a lot of: Why are we here? Are we here to protect the rubber company that’s making the tires? And it’s the same thing, when we go to Iraq, it’s like: What are we doing in Iraq? And there have been some valorous fights—we’ve all earned medals, that’s great. But we come back and we don’t know how to heal. And the VA tells us the way to heal is to talk about it, figure it out, take medication. And that doesn’t work for a lot of people. It ends up making us reclusive.
And for me personally, I think there was no honor in what we were doing there [in Baghdad]. It wasn’t our fault, but we were being used for a dishonorable cause. Now we serve our community, and it’s an honorable cause that helps us put the pieces back together.
What do you have going on right now?
We have people at the Two Rivers campground in Texas who are standing against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. We’re there providing medical training and building relationships. We have an ambassador in Apache Stronghold in Arizona, which is one of the longest-running disputes on Native American land rights in the country right now, they’re trying to back-fill this valley with all this mining material and it’s a sacred area for the Apache Nation. We have a chapter in San Diego, doing outdoor skills, rappelling, rock climbing. We have a women’s advocacy group in Seattle that we’re developing, and we have a headquarters in Buffalo, New York, where we’ve had speaking events.
Right now I’m in Texas and my wife is nine months pregnant, so my life has basically been sitting around a phone all day, running operations from home. But a lot of it right now is trying to raise awareness for our organization and challenge other veterans. We’re trying to make it something that other veterans can look to and say, Okay, there is another voice.
Before this, were you an activist?
I was never really involved in activism. I was a Facebook warrior [laughs]. In Texas, but that didn’t really get me anywhere. But when I went to Standing Rock, I looked at it as nothing more than a movement of troops. And I’ve moved troops all over the place, I know how to get troops from one place to another. And then it’s surviving in a hostile environment, and helping to create infrastructure, it’s like a humanitarian aid mission. We have these skills sets in the veteran movement to mobilize like this.
Do you think about any of this stuff differently since the election?
Veterans Respond didn’t exist before the election, but for me, I have two young children. I’m trying to fight this fight, and when there comes a day when my children can’t drink fresh water I want them to know that dad did everything he could when there was a time to fight. I’m standing outside in Texas right now and it’s 100 degrees outside, in February, it’s making me sweat. I used to think I hope my grandkids have a good life. And then it turned into, Well, I hope my children can finish their natural lives. And now it’s getting to the point where I hope I can sit outside and have a drink of water with my daughter in 20, maybe even 10 years.
Have you always been an environmentalist?
I’ve been a common sense person my whole life. That’s really the best way to say it.