Priest River, Idaho
By Matt Mills McKnight
On a piece of public land near Priest River, Idaho, designated in 1911 as the Priest River Experimental Forest and used over the years by the Conservation Corps., a growing group of like-minded individuals gather to prepare for the worst and express their right to bear arms.
This wasn’t the first time I met members of the Light Foot Militia, but it was the largest gathering of them I had seen in the few years I have been documenting their story. We have kept in touch, and when they contacted me about attending their third annual gathering, I jumped at the opportunity. In years past they were less enthusiastic about having me around for this event, so I was thankful for the access. We first met when I was living in Sandpoint, Idaho, a beautiful mountain lake community about 45 minutes north of Couer d’Alene, Idaho. Jeff Stankiewicz, a welding manager, started assembling a local unit shortly after President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, and it has been growing since.
Enter camp and it’s separated by battalions from various counties of northern Idaho and eastern Washington, an American flag strewn up a makeshift wooden flagpole in the center of it all. Men, women and children mill about and prepare their little corner of the camp.
“People’s feelings in our country started changing with the Tea Party,” said Stankiewicz, during a conversation with other members of the militia and families at an evening bonfire. “I moved to northern Idaho in the nineties and after Waco and Ruby Ridge many of the militia had gone underground. It was all considered taboo and it stayed that way for a long time.”
The U.S. Constitution’s 2nd amendment allows citizens’ their right to arm themselves, and many state constitutions reinforce this idea. Stankiewicz cites the Idaho Constitution and says that “every able-bodied male, ages 18 through 45 years old, already belongs to the militia — it’s his decision whether he serves or not.”
The next morning started with the sound of gunfire at sunrise and the blaring sound of Reveille from a smartphone in the distance. Bleary eyed militia members gathered for morning roll call while the Light Foot Auxilary brewed coffee and started breakfast. This particular Saturday, over summer solstice weekend, would consist of training for members and recruits with rifle, pistol, first aid, mines, land navigation and close quarter combat.
Ed Lestage, a member of the 63rd battalion from Spokane, Washington counted 73 people during the day’s peak. “75 would require us to get a permit from the forest service” said Lestage, who has been with the Light Foot for a few years. “This is the best turnout of people we’ve had to date.”
Members of this group consider themselves a constitutional militia and say they are not affiliated with any hate groups. However, in 2012 the Southern Poverty Law Center attributed them to organizations that “engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines.”
Captain Willard Protsman, from Sandpoint, Idaho, is one of the earliest members of the Light Foot Militia and rebukes the idea that SPLC alleges. “Nobody called us, nobody came and met us. Nobody saw us training.” said Protsman. “They’re full of opinions about how definite they are that we are a certain type of group.”
After the various training classes ended, children were invited to learn gun safety and fire an array of weapons at zombie targets. Although I have photographed teenagers at training sessions before, I was interested to meet Alli Wilbur, 10, and Taylor Picklesimer, 12, two friends accompanied by Taylor’s mother, Stacy Pierce.
“I found the Light Foot Militia online and I went to a meeting in August of 2012,” said Pierce, a corporate recruiter, who has been a sworn member of the 63rd battalion in Spokane, Washington ever since then. “Within this group I’ve been taught to shoot, and before last year I never shot a gun before. I now own weapons, several. I can shoot, and my daughter can shoot now.”
After seeing Jory Neville, a member of the 63rd battalion fire his Bushmaster 556 with a sniper scope, Alli readied the high powered rifle in the prone position to her shoulder. Eyes welling up with tears, she couldn’t bring herself to fire the gun despite the encouragement– both fired other weapons with more confidence afterwards.
The sun set behind the trees, a fire was built and dinner was served by the hard working auxiliary. Around the fire people gathered and discussed lessons learned from the day, their lives and politics.
Anthony Miller, from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, helps lead the 21st battalion of Boundary County near the Canadian border. “I’ve always been the type of person that keeps to myself, I really didn’t get out much,” said Miller of his joining the Light Foot Militia in 2009. “Now being in the public I’ve learned to be a lot more polite to others,” although he said that he was never a mean guy. “It has made me more focused on myself and what do I want to do with my life–now i feel like my life has a lot more meaning.”
The next morning ended with a final “surprise exercise” when a group of militia members and recruits hiked the side of a nearby hill at the camp when a selected member faked a serious injury and a training officer shouted ongoing battle scenarios the team was required to adapt to. The team ultimately fashioned a gurney from some camouflage jackets and pieces of wood they cut from nearby trees. Winter Hawkins, a member of the 9th battalion from Benewah County, Idaho, was carried up a steep hill while bushwacking. She let out screams of fake pain to add to the experience in an odd way.
When they arrived to the camp they were congratulated by other militia members for a job well done, and the families started packing their belongings to head home.