Survivors of 1998 Oregon School Shooting Strive for Normalcy
Teresa Miltonberger’s bangs cover the scar where a bullet pierced the side of her head. She no longer has to wear a hockey helmet when she leaves the house, and she’s back at school every day.
But life is hardly normal. The friends she sat with in the cafeteria a year ago don’t come around anymore.
“They don’t want to look at me,” said the redheaded 17-year-old. “Because then the whole thing comes back for them. . . . They look at me and they relive the situation.”
On May 21, 1998, Teresa was eating breakfast in the same cafeteria at Thurston High School when 15-year-old Kip Kinkel allegedly pulled a semiautomatic rifle from his trench coat and started firing. Two students were killed and 22 others wounded before the shooter was wrestled to the floor.
Teresa was not expected to survive. In addition to the bullet that slammed into her skull, another grazed the back of her head and a third drove into her thigh.
To look at her now, smiling in a Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt, it is hard to believe that a year ago she lay comatose in a hospital intensive care unit, her head so horribly swollen from the bullet that still rests in her brain that her mother had to examine her hands and feet to recognize her.
After months of rehabilitation, Teresa is back, though she sometimes has trouble expressing her thoughts, and for reasons she can’t understand her voice sometimes takes on a harsh, biting tone.
As for memories of the shooting, she has none. The bullet in her brain saw to that.
“I’m not a miracle, but I made it,” said Teresa, sitting in her living room where angel dolls smile down at her from every wall. “I’m glad I’m stubborn.”
‘Living With It 24-7’
Teresa and other survivors of what has become just one in a string of school shootings are stubbornly working to regain what they lost.
Betina Lynn, a 19-year-old senior, counts herself lucky because the bullet that caught her in the back missed her spine by half an inch before coming to rest permanently in her body.
“Most of us still have the bullets inside us,” she said.
Betina said that when classes resumed at Thurston a week after the shooting, she felt pressure from others who weren’t shot to sweep the painful memories under the rug. But she couldn’t do it.
“We were living with it 24-7. We couldn’t put it out of our heads. We had all the scars and stuff to look at every day. It wasn’t something we could just block out like they could . . . or tried to.”
After the first semester, Betina gave up on Thurston, though it meant giving up the only two things she liked about school, playing violin in the orchestra and learning Spanish. Now she attends an alternative school.
Far from sweeping it under the rug, Betina has been flying around the nation promoting gun-control legislation. Sponsored by Sarah Brady’s group Handgun Control, Betina and her mother even joined First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House for a Mother’s Day pledge against gun violence.
“It’s so awful and it’s so forever,” Betina said. “It’s not like the movies. The hero doesn’t get up and get the shooter and save the girl. You sit there and you bleed and you cry.”
Her hope was that the recent shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., costing 15 lives this time, would be enough of a shock to be the final straw.
“A lot of people are waking up to the fact that this is a real problem that isn’t going away,” she said. “It’s not a one-time thing, not a big-town thing, not a West Coast thing. It’s a big thing everybody needs to deal with.”
As if to underscore her point, on Thursday--exactly one month after the Colorado shootings--a youth opened fire at his high school in Conyers, Ga., wounding six students before surrendering. None of the injuries were considered life-threatening.
In Oregon, more reminders of the violence are set to come in September, when Kinkel goes on trial on charges of murdering his parents, Bill and Faith Kinkel, in their home and then driving the next day to school and opening fire in the cafeteria.
Kinkel’s 22-year-old sister, Kristen, was in school in Hawaii at the time of the slayings, but has returned to Springfield and still lives part-time in the home where her parents’ bodies were found.
“Not a day has gone by that I have not thought of the other victims and their families, and share[d] their sorrow, their pain, their grief and their loss,” she said in a statement released last Monday. “We must turn the horror of last May into something helpful. Our feelings must be turned into positive energy to continue the healing.”
Jesse Walley won’t be going to school on the anniversary of the day he was shot in the back--not because he doesn’t want to, but because he has been concentrating on getting his life back to normal. He will be throwing the shotput at the district track championships.
“I feel like I’m done with it, but there are not that many people at school who are really over it,” said Jesse, 17.
Jesse was out of the hospital four days after the shooting, finished out the school year with his classmates and has been working on the two merit badges he needs to become an Eagle Scout.
Though he proudly displays the hunter’s safety card in his wallet and continues to believe that guns are fine in the hands of responsible people, Jesse hasn’t gone deer hunting since the shooting. And he hasn’t gone back to the friend’s backyard where they used to shoot each other with paint-ball guns.
Jesse has accepted invitations to talk to Boy Scout groups about the shooting, but has refused to talk with counselors. He prefers instead to talk with his friends who gather at night at a nearby gas station.
“They’re really saying what they’re thinking,” he said, “not what a textbook or professor tells them to say.”
Teresa Miltonberger doesn’t have much to tell people about the shooting.
What she does remember comes from two months in the hospital, where her parents, family and closest friends kept a round-the-clock vigil and set up prayer chains to other churches as far away as Japan and China.
As long as someone was holding her hand, the swelling of her brain would moderate, allowing a longer time between doses of an experimental antibiotic.
When school started last fall, Teresa was back with her classmates, though she had to wear the hockey helmet and carry an IV with her to class. She overcame her initial fears of returning to the cafeteria.
“It wasn’t the school that did it,” she said. “It was someone in the school.”
She has a new circle of friends, spends more time at home and is closer to her mother than before the shooting. She is back at her old job in the school district mail room. Less of an alienated teenager, she bounces out of bed in the morning, looking forward to each new day.
Though she was not religious before the shooting, she now feels God spared her for a reason.
“I’m not supposed to go up there yet,” she said, casting her eyes heavenward. “Sometime I’m going to do something for him.”
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