| This is the 287th story of Our Life Logs |
I do not have a unique personal back story filled with heroic deeds and grand moments. I was born on a sunny day in July of 1959 in the summer resort town of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My dad was a Colonel in the 136th and my mom was a housewife who stayed constantly busy raising my three brothers and myself. I never had any doubt about what I wanted to be when I grew up. After I graduated high school in 1977, I followed in my dad’s footsteps, finished college in 1981, and became a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. In 1984, I met my soulmate Scott who was a fellow Air Force engineer stationed in California with me.
Scott and I married in 1986 and started our family. On May 10, 1990, I gave birth to my perfect baby boy Luke. Scott and I would talk late into the night about all our dreams and hopes for him and the other children we wanted. We playfully debated how stubborn he’d be as a teenager, if he would be more like me or like Scott, and if he too would go into the Air Force. The amount of happiness and peace that Luke brought into our family was extraordinary. We never wanted it to end.
In 1990, right before Luke’s first birthday, Scott and I were ordered to serve in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. Our snuggles and kisses were interrupted momentarily—we thought.
While we were serving, Luke died from SIDS.
We were devastated. He was only 11 months old. There are no words to describe a parent’s grief upon losing a child. I felt like time had stopped. We never felt the same sort of innocence toward life again. Photographs of your child will almost always cause weeping through broken-hearted smiles, but they also prove your life was once close to perfect. Finally, we tell those who have lost children, in your darkest moments listen to your heartbeat for it knows you do not walk alone. Our children are always with us. This knowledge sometimes gives us the strength to remake our lives. We understand it is never the same life, but memories which linger in your heart are forever yours so let them give you light and comfort.
Slowly, Scott and I tried to put the pieces of our lives together again, and in 1993, I gave birth to our son Mark. Still, Luke was always in our hearts and mind every single day. While trying to get pregnant again in 1995 to help keep our dreams of a large family alive, we were told we would never have any more children. It was a devastating blow to our plans for our future together, but we were thankful to at least have Mark.
Our lives continued in a fairly ordinary pattern, although I had to deploy one last time in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. After I returned from deployment, I resigned from my commission and began teaching at a local high school about five miles from our home.
Life was a beautiful mix of normal and wonderful for the next fifteen years. I almost began to believe the worst events in my life had come and gone. I was wrong.
There was nothing in my life that could prepare me for May 18, 2018, at the small high school where I teach. That is saying a lot, as I am a veteran officer of the Air Force trained in combat systems with over 25 years of mission deployments in the Middle East.
As I pulled into my school’s parking lot, there were no ominous signs from the universe or innate gut feeling to warn me today would be like no other. In fact, the school is always so quiet before students arrive as if the building is not complete without them. That morning, I waited in the silence for my students to fill the desks.
When the first bell rang, I remember putting my purse away and passing out practice test questions. I separated the top handout from the stack and placed it on the first desk, another on the second, another on the third. Then I heard the first pop, the second, and the third. Gunfire and screams. I knew exactly what was happening. I dropped my voice. Low and stern, I said, “Students, go to the back of the classroom. Get in the closet. I’m going to barricade the door.”
I heaved desk after desk against the classroom door. I ran to the back of the room to help cram the last of the 14 students into the closet while I stood outside it. I turned my body towards the barricade and my ear perked for the next shot. I had no gun, no knife or weapon to protect my students. I knew the gunman would have to kill me first before I would let him hurt any of my 16 or 17-year-old students. I remember thinking with my military training, if I could rush him as he shot through the door, I might have a chance to get the gun from him, even if I died in the process.
I never ventured to the classroom door window to see who the gunman was, but I could hear him coming. Heavy footsteps echoed down the hallway and suddenly stopped. Then, I heard the gunfire, screams for mercy, cries for help. The footsteps started walking down the hall again, each time one step closer to my classroom.
I could hear my students in the closet crying, praying and giving each other comfort and strength. For a moment, it flashed through my mind what I learned on the battlefields in the Middle East. Bravery is not a matter of the body and it never has been. Bravery always begins in the soul and emanates into the many courageous actions I have witnessed in my life and is always at its strongest when it gives another solace and comfort. I have long known that soldiers are dreamers. When any battle begins, a brave soldier will fight for his brother or sister, his family at home, his life far away and for the world he left behind. He fights for the life and dreams he holds when he is home. It is that world he fights to save. My students were exhibiting the same type of bravery only a few truly have when confronted with danger. They were reaching down and picking each other up while being brave spirits fighting as one and together against an unknown enemy.
It was at the moment, when the footsteps were almost to my classroom door, that I felt Luke. Later I would tell Scott it had been almost 30 years since I felt him in my arms, caressed his soft cheek with my finger, or gazed into his endlessly wide blue eyes, yet I knew it was him. For the first time since he died, I felt a peace wash over me. I somehow knew my students’ lives would go on. We would survive. As soon as that absolute and resolute certainty resonated throughout my soul, Luke was gone.
As I tilted my head to ascertain what I could hear and feel around me, I realized the gunshots had stopped. The crying and moaning were ongoing, but I finally heard voices I did not recognize, and pounding feet running down hallways and throwing open doors, shouting the word I had been longing to hear. “Police!” Since the first gunshot, only 25 minutes had passed.
Silence and shock walked hand in hand. I saw my students huddled in blankets and being treated with medical procedures. I saw their psyches hanging by a thread. As we waited for police and paramedics to process the crime scene, I kept my students close to me. I kept them talking.
Twelve hours later, I saw my husband, son, and daughter-in-law. I went to them one at a time and then all together in a closed circle while we whispered our thoughts to each other. We prayed for each other, the families of the victims and shooter.
I told my students evil never wins when love is freely offered because the only card evil can play is hate. Love trumps hate every time. I let some students sound off about what would be just punishment for the shooter and let others share their thoughts about forgiveness.
The police finished and we left our small school of only 373 students. I think it was at that moment we all realized the next time we entered, our school would have 8 fewer students, 2 fewer teachers, 60 families impacted by injuries while the rest of us would never be the same again.
Days went by and while the school was still closed, we found out the gunman was a 17-year-old student. I had taught him as had almost all the teachers in the school. He had been armed with a .38 revolver and had even planted two homemade explosive devices that never went off during his rampage. He gave very few warning signs until the day he came into our little school to murder the innocent, destroy families, and forever alter his own destiny.
Eventually, our school reopened with all the new safety measures voted on, but the school was quiet and uneasy. It was as if the building was waiting for the rest of the faculty and student body to arrive.
I have forgiven the shooter for what he did. I can’t say the same for everyone else whose lives were torn apart. Scott and I have met with many of the parents who lost children to this senseless act in hopes that by sharing the loss of our son through an unexpected tragedy, we offer a bit of comfort. We often tell them faith is the quiet belief that provides the courage to live another day. To wake up another day. To keep moving forward when all one wants to do is go back in time.
This is the story of Renee Hettinger
Renee enjoys going on couple retreats with her husband Scott and is very involved with her church. After serving in the military for 25 years and losing her 11-month-old son, Renee thought she’d seen enough tragedy. But when a 17-year-old gunman shot up the school she was teaching in, she realized tragedy will always be around and that in order to heal, she must talk about her hardships and help others. Both Scott and Renee are volunteer members of one of the Natural Disaster Red Cross Emergency Response Teams. Renee enjoys long summer nights, sipping a Sangria while reading on a double hammock that Scott built and hung for them. Renee loves taking family vacations with her son and daughter-in-law and this summer they plan on going to Canada together which is on their bucket list. She and Scott go skydiving, scuba diving and whatever other kinds of diving they can find. Wherever she goes, if she is leaving their home, she takes Luke’s baby book and personal items so he goes with them in spirit and knows he has never been forgotten and is loved very much.
This story first touched our hearts on March 26, 2019.