April 21, 2013
Irma Garcia pulled back her sweater to show me where the bullet entered her shoulder and spun her around. It then torpedoed through her body and exited near the middle of her back.
"I still have problems with it," she said, standing to show me how the left side of her upper body is still somewhat twisted.
It happened 47 years ago in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Charles Whitman, who had served as a Marine, killed his wife and mother and then proceeded to the University of Texas at Austin, where he ascended a campus tower with rifles and handguns and began shooting at people below.
Sixteen were killed, many of them students. Another 31 were wounded during 90 minutes of terror that ended when a policeman shot and killed Whitman. Garcia, a 21-year-old student who was nearing graduation, was shot while walking across campus with her boyfriend on that hot August day in 1966. Her boyfriend was shot, too, and also survived.
"I still don't know who it was that saved me," Garcia said. She only knows that, according to news accounts, she was dragged out of the shooter's range by a stranger who risked his life to help.
I met with Garcia at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where she works as an interpreter. She told me she had been hesitant to share her story, because she's generally reserved about the physical and psychological battles she's had to fight. But with so much violence in the news, along with the defeat of gun control legislation last week in the U.S. Senate, Garcia felt compelled to speak up.
"I was so disappointed," she said of the Senate's failure to approve expanded background checks on gun buyers. Not only do a majority of Americans support such legislation, but Garcia had let herself believe that after 20 first-graders and six adults were shot to death last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., there'd finally be a consensus on sensible reform.
"I just wish senators had had more courage to do the right thing," said Garcia, whose take on guns strikes me as unassailably reasonable.
She believes people have a right to legally buy and properly use guns, and she knows that no amount of firearms control can eliminate gun violence.
"But I can't see anyone having to have guns with these great big magazines, or these high-powered" military-style assault weapons. "I wish they had gone ahead and required a more thorough investigation of who buys guns," she added, noting that as it is, people with criminal backgrounds or a mental illness have access to guns through Internet dealers or at gun shows.
Assault weapons and guns with large magazines account for a small percentage of firearm violence, Garcia said, but it's worth sending the message that there's no need for anyone to have that kind of firepower. Beyond that, she said, guns of all types often fall into the wrong hands, are used in suicides, or end up being used on a family member rather than an intruder.
"I think we have kind of exalted violence" in popular culture, Garcia said. Her job as an interpreter often makes her feel as though she's watching a long, sad parade, as a lost generation winds single-file through the courthouse, lives ruined by gunplay and other violence that plays out in economically depressed neighborhoods.
Garcia, who got her undergraduate degree in language and later went back for a master's in educational psychology, said she's better able to handle what she hears in the courtroom than what she sees on TV news. The Columbine school shooting got to her, as did the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting. And of course there was last week's horror in Boston and Watertown.
But it was Newtown that shook her the most.
"I wanted to get in touch with parents," said Garcia, but she didn't know how to connect.
She wanted to tell those who were traumatized or suffered loss that the dark days will seem impossible to endure, that there will be clearings in the storm, and that time will bring a measure of healing.
Garcia wanted to make another point as well. The Marine who shot her was later determined to have suffered from mental health problems. Garcia said she wishes there were more care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom struggle with post-traumatic stress.
She has her own issues with PTSD. Nearly half a century after what was known as the Texas tower massacre, she sleeps with a light on because she remembers being in a dark place after the shooting. The nightmares are gone, but at times she has flashbacks and hears the murmurs of fellow victims.
"I have my sense of humor back now, but for a while, I had lost it. I say this with humility, but at one time, studying was very easy for me…but it wasn't easy after I got shot."
In time, she saw a silver lining in her heightened appreciation of each day. Garcia moved to Los Angeles about 25 years ago. She is married and dabbles in photography, painting and theater. And she sings with her church choir at St. Mary of the Assumption in Whittier.
Though struggling with a cold, she gave me a sample you can watch at http://www.latimes.com/lopez.
"I've got the blues, I feel so lonely," Garcia sang. "I'll give the world if I could only....Baby won't you please come home."
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