On Kent State anniversary, an email from a mother

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)

  • MrE85

    I don’t know what the National Guard’s “rules of engagement” were at Ferguson and Baltimore, but I’ll bet they were molded by what happened in Kent State. Operating without direct police supervision or orders from military authorities, some members of the Ohio National Guard made the decision to open fire on unarmed college students. It was no accident, nor do I believe there was ever any “sniper,” as the Guard claimed afterwards.

    • BJ

      I wonder , as those of us my age (41) begin to take over, if things like Kent will be repeated. I have a vague remembrance of Kent being discussed in high school. Will our future leaders know enough of the past to not repeat it. I recall just a few days ago the civics topic that Bob brought up. I think perhaps not.

      • crystals

        As someone else of your generation, it seems like there are more than a few parallels between this situation and what’s happening right now in Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland…

        We could all stand to learn a few things from Elaine Holstein, it seems.

    • Jeff

      I grew up near Akron (and Kent) and was in the 9th grade at the time (not that this gives me any authority on the subject). I recall there was almost a feeling of resignation that something was bound to happen. A little context, the students had been rioting for three days before and burnt down the ROTC, threw rocks, and taunted the National Guard. The guard were kids themselves and given rifles with live ammo without training or any skilled leadership.

  • Jim G

    The picture I remember was of unarmed Vietnam War demonstrators facing a phalanx of National Guardsmen armed with M-1 Garands with fixed bayonets. One male demonstrator, shirtless with an obvious bayonet wound in his abdominal area, was shouting at the soldier who had just stabbed him. Government authorities using lethal violence against its citizens has a long and inglorious history.

  • Dan

    “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.”
    Living 45 years longer than your son must have been painful. 45 years later, same unaccountability, same watered-down bs.
    is there any justice?