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Why we must remember the martyrs of Kent State

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. 15 years ago, I visited Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Hanoi and Da Nang and for that brief period of time, got to know some people from the reunited country. It’s funny. Wars are started by governments, not people — I spoke with Vietnamese who bore little ill will towards Americans. I also met some U.S. soldiers, back for the first time since the 60’s and 70’s, eager to close some old wounds and understand a place they fought for and many of their comrades, gave their lives for. I was against the war in Vietnam. I didn’t serve, having received a high draft number and I honestly can’t say what I would have done if called up. That doesn’t make me a coward; it makes me confused.

5 years before the end of the war, one of my neighbors and a high school friend of my brother from Plainview, New York, died as a result of Vietnam. But it wasn’t in the rice paddies where our own soldiers, many of them in their teens, who chose to serve their country, fought and died. This was in Kent, Ohio where 50 years ago this May 4, four students were killed by National Guardsmen, many of whom were the same age as the protesters and should have been hanging out with their friends or attending college themselves, when they fired into the crowd.

Jeffrey Miller was a sophomore at Kent State University and a guy I saw at my home now and then, part of my older brother’s clique of cool seniors, “grownups” I wanted to be even if I was too young to be taken seriously.

Pundits argue whether the war at home influenced our exodus from Southeast Asia and one of the great rights that our military has fought for is the right to freedom of expression.

But no one figured that a college campus could turn out to be its own battlefield. This was America and we are a country that prides itself on having some of the most educated people in the world. We send our kids to college to have an education, something that many did not have. The greatest thrill was having a son or daughter attend a university and making something of themselves. That is truly American.

In 2010, Jeffrey Miller’s mom, Elaine wrote the foreword to my book about the life and loss of my 18 -year old daughter, Erica in 2001. In it, she shared her pain and her anger but she also shared her unwavering hope that we can become better people.

Today, killing continues on college campuses, churches, synagogues, nightclubs. And the perpetrators all have some underlying hate or rhetoric to justify their actions.

But May 4, 1970 was a dark day in our history when 19 year olds with guns faced 19 year olds with banners and books. Some say the students threw rocks, some say the Guardmen shot out of fear. I don’t know what went through any of their minds, what it felt like to feel threatened, just as I don’t know what it’s like for our troops around the world.

But I do know that just as we remember Vietnam, we must remember what happened here at home — That day when the killing visited our own shores. We must remember Jeffrey Miller. And Allison Krause. And Sandra Scheuer. And William Schroeder. We must remember the families that were touched, Guardsmen and students alike.

Hopefully we have learned something from Vietnam. Hopefully we have learned something from all of our military actions in the years that followed and God help us if we learned nothing from Kent State. These four are out of our minds and in some cases, sadly, out of our history books.

And hopefully, it cannot happen here ever again.


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