The Oregonian, Portland
It turns out there’s been a true patriot in Harney County, Oregon, all along. His name is Dave Ward.
When the armed militants arrived and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, they called themselves patriots and twisted a reading of the U.S. Constitution to suit their purposes. Among other things, they argued public lands never really belonged to all Americans and that the federal government had no legal standing to manage them.
But they should have had that conversation more fully with Ward, better known in Burns and around the county as Sheriff Dave, because it’s likely Ward could have set them straight — even though he’s no constitutional scholar and had, in a meeting before the occupation, told the self-proclaimed patriots their demands were entirely outside the law.
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Ward revealed himself in 2014 in his application for the sheriff’s job. In it, he wrote: “I’ve spent many years of my life serving our country, stateside and abroad, to protect the Constitution and believe it is the sheriff’s responsibility to protect each person’s rights under the Constitution of the United States,” Les Zaitz of The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
It’s the “each person’s rights” part that stands out. The rights of law-abiding citizens in Harney County and beyond were abridged through the month of January as the occupiers pled their hollow, dangerous case. Schools and roads were briefly closed. The peace was disturbed for weeks. And taxpayers are still paying hefty sums to law enforcement, working 24/7 under a difficult mandate in the face of armed occupiers: no bloodshed.
Few would be unmoved, then, when Ward appeared before reporters on Wednesday following the arrest of several ringleaders and the shooting death of one. The special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation spoke. So did the U.S. Attorney. Their messages were measured, brief, purposeful. Ward, a solidly built fellow whose ruddy complexion seems wrought by high desert winds, fought back tears. He was the man who, against the feds’ advice, had taken a face-to-face meeting with ringleader Ammon Bundy to offer a peaceful exit from the compound. He was the man who not once issued a threat against the occupiers and had calmly told Zaitz: “We have to rely on what’s in the hearts of others.” But the apprehension of occupiers on Tuesday — a strategic victory that broke the occupation — had “ended badly,” Ward said, because rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot dead.
Haltingly, Ward amplified his message and ended it ruefully: “This has been tearing our community apart. It’s time for everyone in this illegal occupation to move on. It doesn’t have to be bloodshed in our community. If we have issues with the way things are going in our government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on them in an appropriate manner. We don’t arm up and rebel. ... This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America. And it can’t happen in Harney County.” The room broke out in applause as Ward walked off.
Ward grew up in Drain, a tiny timber town near the Umpqua River, and as a boy would ride a horse into the woods and camp and fish. Following high school graduation, he joined the U.S. Army, trained as a combat medic and shipped out to Somalia. He did a tour in Afghanistan. All told, he performed a 21-year run of service comprising active duty, the Oregon Army National Guard and the Army Reserves. In between, he took a job in a mill in Drain but, boxed in by it, took a job as a ranch hand in Lake County, where years later he’d become a corrections deputy. Always he carried with him his churchgoing ways and other values of his upbringing, including respect for the foundations of government, among them the U.S. Constitution.
The refuge occupation will likely be remembered as a brief Sagebrush Rebellion reprise, replete with central casting cowboys who spoke in we’ll-die-if-we-must heroics. It should instead be remembered for its true patriot, the man who exuded calm and courage as he fought effectively for citizen rights made plain by the Constitution: Dave Ward.