Retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Collen Boland marked Veterans Day with a vigil outside Schuyler County Jail in New York.
That's where a fellow veteran was serving a 15-day sentence for refusing to pay a fine for trespassing — and where she too may end up following a Nov. 19 court appearance.
Boland and Dwain Wilder, a former sailor, were among 10 protesters arrested late last month for blocking the entrance of an energy company that just days before got approval to expand a natural gas storage facility in old salt caverns near the largest of New York's pristine Finger Lakes.
The pair are among hundreds of so-called Seneca Lake Defenders who fear the environmental impacts of the project.
Until late last month, Boland, 58, lived a relatively quiet life in Elmira, just north of the Pennsylvania border. She retired from the Air Force in 1995 following what she called a storybook career traveling to parts of the world she hadn't known existed. She went on to earn a degree in human development from Cornell University and volunteer for a home for abandoned children in Nepal.
"When I retired, I retired," Boland said. "I didn't carry my veteranship along with me. I didn't profit up, ever."
But on Oct. 27, she donned the U.S. Air Force fleece jacket emblazoned with her name, rank and rows of decorations. She headed out to Crestwood energy company's Schuyler County entrance and linked arms with fellow protesters. When a tractor trailer approached, the human chain refused to move. Sheriff's deputies showed up a few minutes later and placed them under arrest.
The whole ordeal was captured on video that has since been uploaded to YouTube.
She wore the jacket for a number of reasons, Boland said in a press conference that followed the group's arrest and release.
"One is to try to dispel the notion that the only people standing up to protect our water, our air, and our communities are tree-hugging hippies or out of touch dreamers. Don't get me wrong, I love trees, but I was never quite cool enough to be a hippie —and I'm certainly not dreaming," she said to a roar of laughter and applause. "I am still serving, still defending. I am defending the natural beauty of the Finger Lakes region that I love against all enemies foreign and domestic."
In an email statement, a Crestwood spokesman said the company respects the rights of protesters who oppose the growth projects. "But our employees and contractors depend on having access to our existing operations" at the century-old U.S. Salt plant where the rally took place.
"Unfortunately, we were required to involve law enforcement after the protests began to raise safety concerns and interfere with the operations" there, according to the statement.
Boland grew up in Corning, New York, just south of the site of the protest. Her older brother went to West Point, and it was on weekend visits with her father that, she said, they saw "lots of precision and shiny things. That attracted me."
Boland's family expected her to go to college after high school. When that didn't work out, she said, "I had to find something to do, and relatively quickly. Being familiar with shiny things and being impressed by that — duty, honor, country — it was an easy path."
She spent three years active duty Army and one year in the Army Reserves. "Then I switched over to the good life in the Air Force."
Boland was a career administration specialist. "Besides basic training, the military never told me what my next assignment was going to be. I always managed to find my own job," she said. "Even though I chose to serve my country, I found ways to choose how and where I could best serve. I took control of my own fate."
She worked at the Pentagon and was a staff member for the White House's National Space Council. She was an administrative assistant for the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, traveling to more than 20 countries by the end of her Air Force career.
"It was very difficult and the stress level was high and we didn't sleep much. But the opportunity to go out there and meet the people of the world and feel that we're all in this together — that forms who I am today and what I'm doing today," Boland said.
Still, she never imagined she'd become an activist — or that she'd one day use her military experience to help bring attention to her cause. (Such a thing is off-limits to active-duty troops.)
It happened a few years ago, Boland said, after she watched the 2010 documentary "Gasland." The film details the dangers of drilling for natural gas, and the highly contentious process of hydraulic fracturing in particular.
"That was it, once I saw that. The next thing I knew I was up in Albany," Boland said, lending her voice to a growing cacophony of opposition. "I started saying no and hell no."
When New York lawmakers passed a two-year moratorium on the process in 2013, she turned her attention south, to just over the border in Pennsylvania.
Infrastructure used to support fracking extends well into New York, she said. "It breaks my heart to see this beautiful region become a storage and fracking hub of the northeast."
The company she and others protested against recently received approval to expand storage of methane gas in abandoned salt taverns, although it hasn't yet begun. Proponents of the project say it is perfectly safe.
Boland believes the science says otherwise.
"Once you know something — even as painful and distressing as it is — you can't un-know it," she said. "You get involved in it and you can't turn it off. It's most distressing. I can't walk away from it. So here I am today."
Boland faces charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct, to which she pleaded guilty to Nov. 5. The judge in her case postponed a decision until Nov. 19.
She'll most likely be ordered to pay a fine — which Boland, like fellow veteran Dwain Wilder — has no plans to do. If it lands her in a jail cell, she said, so be it.
Meanwhile, she has no plans to sit quietly. Boland again donned her Air Force jacket for the Veteran's Day vigil, a somber occasion attended by about 60 people, she said. And she again spoke out against Crestwood and a decision by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation that brought the state one step closer to allowing for the storage of liquefied petroleum gas.
In her remarks outside the jail, Boland called it "two-front war."
Wilder was released just after midnight a day later.
"We have done everything we can to stop this madness. We've gone to the legislature, the county, to Albany, to Washington, D.C. We've written letters and made public comments to the Environmental Protection Agency. We've done everything the system says we have to do to have a voice," Boland said. "There comes a time when the only thing left is civil disobedience."