Columbia, SC — On Feb. 8, 1968, I was shot in the right side of my neck, with a double-ought buckshot round lodging against my spine. Three students died, and 28 others were wounded that horrific night 45 years ago, after an eight- to 10-second barrage of police gunfire on the campus of S.C. State College. It became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
I was taken to the hospital in Orangeburg, with doctors uncertain I would live. I was blessed with a mother who ventured out that night from Summerville, along with my 17-year-old brother, and ran a gauntlet of law enforcement personnel to pick me up and drive me to Charleston, where most of the buckshot was removed.
Mom’s No. 1 concern was that, if I should die that night, I did not harbor malice or anger toward whoever it was that shot me. I didn’t then or now. A caring family has been a stabilizing anchor for me over the past 45 years.
I slowly recovered from the wound and graduated that May. I got married six days later and voluntarily enlisted two months after that in the U.S. Army. I was commissioned as an infantry officer a year later, after attending Officer Candidate School. My almost 29-year military career included combat in Vietnam and in Operation Desert Storm.
I do not know why God spared me that night on campus, or why he allowed me to come back from two wars. I have been blessed with a loving wife, a son, two daughters, a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law and four grandchildren. I give thanks to him.
And I can’t help thinking of what might have been for Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton had they survived that fateful night. They may have gotten married and had families by now. They may have been finishing up careers and looking forward to retirement. They possibly would be enjoying things grandpas and grandchildren do together. Perhaps we can take some solace in the words from Psalm 116: 15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His servants.”
I also think about current circumstances for those who survived the shootings. How has this tragedy affected us and our relations with families, friends and other acquaintances?
To be sure, each survivor was adversely affected in different ways. The common thread for us is the lingering trauma of being shot and/or beaten … suddenly … without warning … and, from our perspective, for no apparent reason. After all, we stood within the safe confines of campus grounds that night. Or so we thought.
One of the most difficult realities I have confronted centers on knowing that there were victims who did not have that privilege of becoming a husband, father or grandfather. Not only those who were killed; lives of wounded survivors were severely and permanently altered — physically, mentally and emotionally. Some still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, reliving the events of that night, experiencing feelings of irritability or outbursts of anger, or having trouble falling or staying asleep. Some may have had problems with alcohol, other substance abuse and depression.
Perhaps a full inquiry by the state of South Carolina could help heal the lasting wounds and emotional scars of that night 45 years ago. Provisions might include proper treatment for those still suffering from trauma that affected them economically and emotionally. We do not have the power to go back and undo what happened in 1968. Fully confronting the truth, however, may provide lessons for avoiding such tragedies in the future.
Our goal should be that espoused by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Mr. Simmons is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.