There is a natural link between the present and former members of the U.S. military, and the American freedom they have strived to protect for over two centuries.
One of the biggest threats to our nation's freedom doesn't loom necessarily on the battlefield, according to a group of veterans associated with Operation Free who spoke on the University of South Dakota campus Tuesday afternoon.
The growing risk to the United States' security comes from the country's growing dependence on foreign oil, according to Operation Free, a coalition of veterans, and national security organizations that have come together and are spreading the word of how the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, specifically oil from overseas, is causing global climate change and threatening the nation.
"Our current energy policies are leading to the deaths and injuries of our men and women overseas in Afghanistan. We don't think about this, but it's the truth. We get 60 percent of our oil from overseas right now," said Matt Victoriano, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps from Texas who served two stints in the Middle East.
Victoriano describes the rather arduous, and in his words, costly, process that must be undertaken to fuel the U.S. military's activities in Afghanistan.
The United States currently purchases oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia, he said.
"We pay those countries to develop and process that oil then we pay other countries to ship that oil over to Pakistan. Then we pay Pakistan to use their port, and we pay Afghan truckers to transport oil and gasoline over the two overland roads that lead to Afghanistan," Victoriano said. "We're paying much more than $2.50 per gallon (for gasoline) at that point."
The money the U.S. pays to Afghan truckers eventually winds up in the hands of the Taliban, Victoriano said. They are forced to fund Taliban activities in order to stay safe on roads controlled by the terrorists.
"The Taliban takes that money that we gave Afghan truckers to transport that oil, and they set up ambushes on those roads and destroy our (military) vehicles and kill our men and women over in Afghanistan using the money that we paid for that oil," he said.
The U.S. has paid approximately $66 billion for oil from Saudi Arabia, Victoriano said. "Since the 1980s, they (Saudi Arabia) have spent $70 billion on extremists, insurgents and terrorists – the same terrorists who are killing members of our military in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world."
The U.S. military is taking steps to wean itself from such a heavy dependence on oil from countries that wish to put American troops in harm's way.
"On bases throughout the United States, the U.S. Army, for example, is transforming its fleet of vehicles and its installations to use alternative energy sources," Victoriano said. "It's our responsibility, as civilians, to also take action – to learn the facts, to discuss this with our friends, families and neighbors, and to influence our members of Congress to push through energy reform now."
In the words of Operation Free, oil addiction means the U.S. must fight just to "keep the lights on." The organization's literature notes that "the longer the U.S. remains dependent on fossil fuel, the more the U.S. will have to engage in tough fights just to protect energy supplies.
It is, as Victoriano noted, an expensive fight. According to Operation Free, the U.S. Navy budgeted $28.1 billion to patrol sea lanes alone in fiscal year 2009, with much of that patrolling to keep trade, particularly oil, flowing.
"Our energy policy and our climate security are linked," said Patrick Bellon, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. He noted that many of the people across the globe who commit acts against U.S. troops don't fit the stereotype most Americans have of terrorists. Many times, people who set off roadside bombs or commit other sorts of violence, Bellon said, do so simply to earn money to survive.
The increase in the use of fossil fuels, and the subsequent climate change it causes will only make that problem worse.
"Climate change is going to increase the civil unrest around the world; it's going to increase the pool of potential terrorists that people who are against our best interests are going to draw upon," Bellon said.
Climate change will also exacerbate national disasters in some of the poorest nations in the world, he said, creating a situation where terrorists can effectively take advantage of people in desperation.
"That's why we are here today, to make this connection between our energy policy and consumption, the types of fuel sources that we have, and their effect on the climate," Bellon said.
Leighann Dunn, a USD graduate student and S.D. Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq in 2003-04, said every day while in that country, she would encounter long lines of cars and trucks whose drivers were waiting for just one thing: gasoline.
Something somewhat similar happened in the United States in the 1970s, when a fuel crisis caused long lines at gas pumps across the nation.
"Today, we import 70 percent more of our energy than we did in the 1970s, and what happens when that day comes when those countries turn off that resource? What happens to our military?"
It's time, she said, for the United States to invest in developing sustainable energy sources for the future.
"We need to put our money and resources into all different types of energy – such as solar, wind and biodiesel, " Dunn said.
Eric Dunn, a USD student who spent nine years with the South Dakota National Guard, said the U.S military needs two things to operate: water and oil.
"We have enough water right now, but we get 60 percent of our oil from foreign countries," he said. "Why are we getting 60 percent of something that we need to defend our country from other nations? That just doesn't make any sense, especially when you stop and consider that the billion dollars a day we spend on importing oil from other countries could be spent here in America.
"We could create jobs, and keep that money in our own economy," Dunn said. "The byproduct would be a safer America, a cleaner America, and an America that is better to live in. That's why we are so passionate about Operation Free."