On Kent State anniversary, an email from a mother

John Filo, the photographer who captured the aftermath of the May 4, 1970, shootings of students by Ohio National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University, hugs Mary Ann Vecchio, the young woman featured in his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, during commemoration events Monday, May 4, 2009 in Kent, Ohio. Jeff Glidden | AP

I can think of only three pictures at the moment that universally captured a moment during the Vietnam War.

There’s one of a naked girl running from a napalmed village, another that captures a Viet Cong soldier seconds before being executed in Saigon during the Tet offensive and one of college student Jeffrey Miller lying on the ground, where Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over him in John Filo’s Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph.

“No one even bent down to get a closer look,” Filo said 15 years ago of the Guard officers. “The sergeant who did not have a rifle rolled the body of Jeffrey Miller over with his boot. That incensed some people.”

A friend of mine, who interviewed his mother some years ago, keeps in touch with her and on this day each year they exchange emails. She’s 93 now.

Elaine Holstein’s email today, which he posted on his Facebook page, seems particularly poignant.

“Dear Steve,

It means so much to me to know that you still keep Jeff in your thoughts. It’s really pretty amazing – 45 years after his death and you and a number of other people who had never known Jeff still think about him. How he would love that! He was something of a ham – I’m sure you didn’t know that.

I remember getting a phone call from an ambulance driver during the time that Jeff was a student at Plainview High School and a Newsday delivery boy. Jeff had been on his bike, delivering his papers when his bike hit something and he went flying over the handlebars, landing on his face on somebody’s freshly blacktopped driveway.

I rushed to where he was still lying on the ground, his face all battered up and he looked up at me and said, “Do you think this will make the front page of Newsday?”

Of course no one would have ever expected that just a few years later, he actually would make the front page of Newsday in such a horrendous way.

My son Russ and my grandson Jeff are out at Kent today and Russ will be one of the speakers at the 45th anniversary ceremonies. Soon it will be my grandson’s turn to take on this responsibility – and I can even anticipate the day when Rachel, my 3 ½ year old great-granddaughter will be the one to do the speaking.

It has become evident to me how an event such as the Kent State shootings has such a ripple effect and affects so many generations so profoundly.”

She was featured in an Al Jazeera documentary on the shootings in 2010.

In a 2010 essay, she said the following decade was filled with disillusionment and lawsuits.

At the end of our legal battles, we were pressured by the judge and by our lawyers into accepting a settlement in which the parents of the dead students discovered that their sons and daughters’ lives were worth a mere $15,000 each.

It was never about the money for me. I wanted an admission of culpability, and more than that, I wanted an assurance that no mother would ever again have to bury a child for simply exercising the freedom of speech. But all we got was a watered down statement that better ways must be found, etc., etc.

I also discovered what I perhaps should have known already: that so many of my compatriots did not feel as I did. They believed that the students who were killed or wounded got what they deserved and, as I heard far too often, the National Guard “should have killed more of them.”

She’s still disillusioned, she wrote. “Please, let us lower the volume and be civil toward each other. For Jeff’s sake. And for all of ours,” she said.

(h/t: Steve North)

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