The Big Green Machine

Military vets are on a mission to end America’s dependence on fossil fuels

| November-December 2010

Ten years ago,Robin Eckstein was a college student in Appleton, Wisconsin, struggling to pay her bills. Out of the blue, a National Guard recruiter e-mailed, offering a free college education in exchange for her military service. She enlisted and reported for active duty in October 2000. Three years later, she was driving supply trucks across the Iraqi desert.  

Eckstein has been out of the U.S. Army for three years now, but on this frigid Tuesday morning in late March, the 33-year-old finds herself pulling transport duty once more. This time she’s driving a big blue biodiesel-fueled bus across the state of Ohio with an ex-marine, a former Army sergeant, and a one-time Army specialist in tow.  

The foursome is part of Operation Free, a campaign to promote clean energy organized by the Truman National Security Project, a progressive leadership organization. Now in its second year, Operation Free has gotten dozens of veterans to log more than 25,000 miles and travel across 21 states to stop and talk at union halls, factories, statehouses, and radio and TV stations about how America’s dependence on oil determines not only which wars we fight but also our ability to wage war.  

They argue that America must become energy-independent, invest in renewables, and commit to a future that eradicates the threat of climate change—not because it’s the feel-good thing to do but because this nation’s security depends on it. 

While she drives down I-71, Eckstein talks about a typical day in Iraq as an Army specialist, working a slow-moving convoy of trucks that carried water and fuel to troops dispersed throughout the desert. Exposed to harsh weather and frequent sniper fire, her detail was one of the most dangerous in the service. “We were the weakest link,” she says. “If one of us gets taken out, you don’t know how far the dominoes are going to fall.” Without fuel to power up their Humvees, helicopters, and tanks, troops can do little other than sit and wait. Even now, Eckstein can’t help but think of thirsty soldiers waiting for fuel in the middle of the desert.  

She is not alone in her worry.