Kent State University: The Start of the Crescendo
By Cynthia & Michael Orange
Forty years ago, I survived combat in Vietnam and returned to my college campus to finish the degree the war had interrupted. Instead of the bucolic haven for higher learning I remembered during my two years there, I arrived at the start of an anti-war protest sparked by President Nixon’s announcement two days earlier that he had directed US forces to invade Cambodia, a neutral country in the war. The next day, protestors (or agent provocateurs) burned down the campus ROTC building—a rickety WW II-vintage barracks that was slated for demolition. Governor James A. Rhodes capitalized on this opportunity to issue a strong law-and-order response intended to help him with the Republican primary battle he was facing, so he ordered the Ohio National Guard to take control of the campus and squelch student dissent.
The sight on Main Street of M113 APCs with top-mounted machine guns trailing live ammo belts followed by National Guardsmen with 10-inch-long bayonets protruding from their M1 rifles marching towards my campus sent me into knee-buckling dismay and anger. Two days later, after numerous futile attempts to disperse angry crowds of students chanting, “Guard off campus,” the unit’s Troop G regrouped at the top of a hill next to Taylor Hall, took up firing positions at the order of “Guard, prepare to fire,” and then opened up for thirteen seconds on a crowd of unarmed students. Most of their sixty-seven rounds went over heads, but fourteen found their targets, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom never walked again.
We travelled with our close friend, Nic, another Kent State alumni who was on campus that on that fateful day, May 4, 1970. He was one of the students that Troop G chased. Nic had to climb a fence to get away but when he heard the volley, he raced back toward the Guardsmen and helped Sandra Scheuer, a hearing and speech student on her way to class. A 30 Cal. round had exploding her neck and the bleeding was profuse. Nic and others stayed with her until an ambulance finally came. “Nic was just like a soldier,” a mutual friend told us through her tears upon our departure for our pilgrimage to Kent. “He wouldn’t leave his fallen comrade.” After ambulances carried Sandra and the other dead and wounded students away, Nic turned to the place where a head shot had killed Jeffrey Miller. “Someone dipped a flag in the pool of his blood and kept waving it all around,” Nic told us. “At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, then the rage set in. I had so much anger. It was such a tragic abuse of power.”
While many VetSpeak readers sacrificed in the jungles of Vietnam at the time, Nic and many like him sacrificed during the war at home. The residual poison of that day has haunted Nic ever since. It took him 40 years to return to KSU, his battleground. Like many combat veterans, he needed to confront his ghosts and tell his story.
Laurel Krause and her 84-year-old mother, Doris, also bear the scars of losing their 19-year-old sister and daughter, Allison, a committed peace activist and Kent State student who was also killed that day. Laurel, who was just 15 at the time, told us she has PTSD from the trauma of having a loved one so senselessly and suddenly lost to them forever. Knowing that many others—townspeople, University administrators, students and their families, Vietnam veterans, Guardsmen, and police—still carry deep grief, anger, and unresolved feelings about that tragedy, Laurel and her mother created a “Truth Tribunal” for the 40th anniversary, fashioned after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela after apartheid. (Testimony can viewed at: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/6679242.)
From May 1-4, all those who wished to could come to the space the Krauses rented above the Franklin Square Deli in downtown Kent to record how their experiences at Kent State affected their lives. Learning that these events had enormous effects on others helped Nic understand how trauma responses are normal reactions to abnormal occurrences. As he and many veterans have discovered, breaking silence can be like salve to a long-festering wound.
Laurel Krause told us she felt lighter, even joyful, after being able to talk about Alison’s life and death and offer others a chance to share their stories. Nic said it was wonderful to finally be ready to share this life-altering experience with his family. As a wise person said, “Trauma may always be with you, but you can learn to carry it differently.”
Throughout our time at Kent, we kept crossing paths with fellow members of VVAW, who had a strong presence during the anniversary events. One of these veterans told us how he vividly recalls being in Vietnam when he got the news of the killings. “I just hung my head and sobbed. I was supposed to be in Vietnam defending my country—supposedly fighting for democracy and rights like free speech. And then I found out our soldiers killed students for speaking out against the war we all hated?” (VVAW photos are courtesy of Ward Reilly, FB)
Over the course of the weekend, we were struck repeatedly at the toll war takes—whether one fights it on the battlefield or on the streets of American cities. The evening of May 3rd, we heard Congressman John Lewis, the keynote speaker for the anniversary events. He strikingly described the long history of people’s movements in this country and the sacrifices progress demands. He threaded the martyrdoms of the civil rights movement to those of the peace movement. He honored names every American should know; names like Emmitt Till, Medger Evans, and the names of the four little girls murdered in the Montgomery, Alabama church bombing. And then he linked them to Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, murdered at Jackson State, and the names on the KSU campus memorials: Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder.
After Congressman Lewis’s powerful speech, we crossed the campus to hear Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers and one of the celebrated Chicago 8. Without notes and seemingly without taking a breath for two hours, Seale captivated an audience of all ages and experiences with his rapid-fire tales of the 60s. His story—his truths—of the Panthers’ programs of community empowerment were in stark contrast with the descriptions from the FBI-inspired corporate media that smeared the organization. For example, J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers’ program of offering free breakfast for kids as a “communist-inspired conspiracy that would destroy the country.” (Presentations can be viewed at: http://fluxview.com/USA/JohnLewis-KentState-CivilRightsHistory.)
The evening culminated with an hour-long candlelight procession around the perimeter of the campus. About 750 people walked in light rain and solemn silence in honor of the fallen over ground stained so many years ago by blood and tears shed by bayoneted and gassed students. At midnight, we arrived at the parking lot where the four students were so senselessly murdered. Like chalk lines at a murder scene, stubby light pylons outlined the exact locations where they fell. We both remarked at how the memorial at KSU was another Wall; another monument to the insanity of war.
The Kent State shootings marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. While there is a long history of government violence against minorities and unions, Kent was the first time the weapons targeted white students. The anti-war movement ramped up after Kent State to the point where it shorted the war and thus saved lives. As historian, Howard Zinn, said in an interview in 2007, “I think the war ended because the protests in the United States reached a crescendo, which couldn’t be ignored.” Kent State started the crescendo that stopped the war.
Cynthia Orange is a freelance writer, editor, and writing consultant. Her latest book, Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD (Hazelden) will be available in July. (See Cynthia’s web site at: Shock Waves)
Michael Orange is an environmental consultant and he teaches a college class on sustainability planning and another on the Vietnam War. As a Marine serving in Vietnam, he experienced combat in numerous search-and-destroy missions and patrols during his one-year tour of duty (1969-70). In 2001, he published a memoir of his experiences, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam. (See Michael’s author’s page: http://www.amazon.com/J.-Michael-Orange/e/B003H42CU2/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1/187-5695868-3845913)