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May 4th, 2010
03:30 PM ET

The legacy of Kent State: A mother's wisdom

By Ronni Berke and Carol Costello, CNN

(CNN) – May 4, 1970: a turning point in America's Vietnam legacy.

That day, Elaine Holstein's son, Jeff Miller, was one of four students killed when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University. Holstein is still haunted. "The nightmare is 40-years-old," she says.

Tensions were high. President Richard Nixon had just announced the Vietnam War had expanded into Cambodia and every family with a young man like Jeff had to grapple with the possibility he might be drafted into combat.

Her son, who would have turned 60 this month, had called her before going to the demonstration. "He said 'don't worry about it. I might get arrested, but I won't get my head broken.'"

Later, when she heard about the shootings on the radio, she tried calling Jeff at his apartment. Another student answered. "He's dead," he told her.

That moment marked the end of Holstein's innocence, she says.

"Not only was Jeff killed, but I feel like I was one of the wounded. It was a defining moment. I'm certainly not the person that I was two minutes before I was on that phone."

"I didn't realize there was this kind of division in the country. There were all the divisions of people who were against women's rights, who were against gay rights, but there was this great division between parents and children."

Holstein shared her son's opposition to the war and says she was stunned by the reaction people had to his death. She received thousands of letters, some of them vicious hate mail. "Threatening letters, 'people like you brought up your kids this way and they deserved what they got.' There would be feces in the envelope."

"I don't know what I expected them to do, obviously their sympathies were not with me," she adds.

Now she hopes that others can learn from her painful experience. For one thing, she says, freedom of speech should never be taken for granted – don't assume that only in other countries did people have to watch what they say.

"This was taken for granted, this could not happen. It happened."

Holstein is also worried about the tone in political discourse today. It's a country divided, she says, but in a different way.

"One of the things that frightens me is, I listen to the rhetoric which is so ugly and I don't think they understand what can happen as a result of this," Holstein says. "There are consequences, you can't just throw words around and call people names and stir people up and think that nobody is going to get hurt."

Filed under: Crime • U.S.
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Mark

    What an awful time . Although 5 yrs younger than Jeff grew up on same street in Plainview N.Y. My son is a graduate of west pt.. and presently in Iraq and so very proud of him, BUT how does this happen, children slaughtered by the U.S. Govt, Our citizens. Children. God bless Mrs Holstein, think of you often.

    May 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  2. William Crabbe

    I remember too well about May 4, 1970. I was watching the evening news with my family and a report about a shooting at Kent State suddenly flashed on the screen. We were horrorifed to see National Guardsmen shooting innocent students. My prayers go out to Elaine Holstein and the other families that lost children on the terrible day. I will always think about Kent State every year on that date. Richard Nixon should have been Impeached just because of that mistake. Wiilam C. Crabbe

    May 5, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  3. dlove3012

    Kurt, there was really no punishment to speak of. The members of the guards, including General Canterbury, signed a document stating that the shooting should not have taken place – that's pretty much it. You'll probably be surprised to know that, directly following the tragedy, there were 24 students and one faculty member who were indicted – not the guardsmen! You can look up the "Kents State 25" to learn more...

    Because of the incident, live ammo is not commonly used in protest situations any longer – bean bags and rubber pellets were developed as non-lethal means of crowd control.

    May 5, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  4. Kurt w

    The national guard should not be shooting students in Ohio. Protesting is what university students do. I do not remember if the commander was punished for this but do not think he was other than perhaps a resignation. A series of events like that could become serious.

    Whenever I hear that the govt. might deploy the national guard for some reason,... I am wondering why or if they would shoot americans if told to do so? I would hope that they have more common sense than that these days. kw

    May 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm |