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By Donald McNamara
When the killings a Kent State University occurred, I was a college student, using my GI Bill money to pay for a bachelor's degree in political science.
In my first year of college, I rented a room with a family that had two daughters who were attending universities out of state—I guess my rent was helping defray the costs of their tuition. I still remember hearing the husband and wife arguing about what happened at Kent State; she was appalled that he was not more sympathetic to the students. I wondered if I should interpose myself in that argument. I didn't, which was probably the wise choice, but their disagreement reminded me of my time after Vietnam, when I was finishing out my term of service.
For my final six months in the Army, I was stationed at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, in the 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and I was there during the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) and Robert Kennedy (June 5), and the rioting that ensued both times, in various places throughout the country, including Washington, DC.
Because we could be in DC very quickly with a ride down Interstate 95, we were put on alert, meaning that our "weeks" consisted of nine days: three days for which we had to stay in uniform and in the barracks, ready to move out on a minute's notice; three days during which we could leave the barracks (after signing out) but had to stay in uniform; and three days during which we could wear civilian clothes and leave the barracks.
What stood out in my mind, in relation to the argument my landlords were having, was that, during my time at Fort Meade that we were training for riot control, we were informed in no uncertain terms that if we were sent into the city we would not be given live ammunition, at all. Besides that, we would fix our bayonets, but they would stay sheathed. I thought of that when I heard about Kent State, and I wondered: "Who the fuck authorized giving those National Guardsmen live rounds? And then who ordered them to shoot?" We could possibly have been in the line of fire near the rioting in DC, but on a college campus? And to make it especially hideous, they shot kids who were nowhere near them, kids on their way to class who had no idea of what was going on.
I still remember the discussions that raged on our campus—Iona College—about what should be done in response to the killings. It seemed to me during these discussions that, all in all, there was a lack of empathy for the students and support for the government, support that would erode over the next couple of years.
Eventually, classes were canceled, causing a flurry of adjustments on the part of administrators, professors, and students. When the academic year came to an abrupt halt, people weren't sure if they should be mad at the students, the National Guard, President Nixon, Ho Chi Minh, or someone else—or if they should be mad at all. I even wondered how all this squared with the freedom that I had saddled up to protect and defend.
I can't help but believe that there persisted in this country a sense that the people who were killed at Kent State had it coming (certainly President Nixon thought so), and I sense that such a feeling stemmed from an anger. Not that the students confronted or insulted members of the armed forces, but that they were standing up and saying that our country was doing the wrong thing. As if the only obligation any of us has is to mindlessly follow orders and keep quiet and any protesters anywhere deserved nothing better than summary execution.
As for our riot control in 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, we were rushed into DC, but then we camped (literally) on the grounds of the VA Medical Center, very close to The Catholic University of America, where 33 years later I would receive a Ph.D. in English, and not at all close to any rioting. For two days we played volleyball and touch football, and a troupe of entertainers came in to give us something similar to a USO show. We didn't have to dig any foxholes or send out ambush patrols or LPs. After Robert Kennedy's assassination, parts of the regiment were sent into the city, but I was in the part that stayed back, holding the fort. Six weeks later I was honorably discharged, and I got away as fast as I could.
Donald McNamara served in the First Infantry Division from January of 1967 to January of 1968.