Thursday, May 13, 2010

VT shooting victim: 'More than a survivor'

The 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech marked the experience of nearly every college student who is about to graduate. For Heidi Miller one of the survivors of that day, it only made her stronger.

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Previous coverage of Heidi Miller

BLACKSBURG -- This is not a story about who shot Heidi Miller three times on April 16, 2007.

Or about the grueling, sometimes excruciating, recovery that enabled her to walk -- and run -- again.

It's not about what might have been done to stop the worst school shooting in U.S. history that left 32 students and faculty, and the gunman, dead.

This is a story about what comes next.

"I am so much more than a victim and a survivor of April 16th," Miller said.

She's a world traveler. An honors student. A dependable friend. A feisty, independent-minded daughter. A college senior who gets the occasional speeding ticket and once had her car towed for illegal parking.

And, after she graduates Friday from Virginia Tech with a double major in international studies and geography, Miller -- whose life changed forever in a classroom in Norris Hall -- will become a teacher.

One of the last two survivors to finish their undergraduate degrees, Miller will leave a university far different than the one she entered in 2006. So will fellow shooting victim Hilary Strollo and most of the soon-to-be graduates from colleges across Southwest Virginia and beyond. Strollo, a biological sciences major from Gibsonia, Pa., is expected to graduate this month, too.

From threat assessment teams to loudspeakers and other alert systems that deliver emergency bulletins by e-mail and text message, the Tech tragedy has in some way marked the experience of every college student in the nation.

Before April 16, 2007, campus safety was adrift with little standardization, attention or resources, said Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security On Campus, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Three years later, however, there have been "profound changes in the attention paid to it, by the institutions themselves, by the states, by the federal government," Carter said.

But most of those changes, carried out in conference rooms, are invisible to students and casual observers. Even at Tech.

Aside from the memorial stones on the Drillfield, few visible reminders of the tragedy remain. And, except for the scar on her left knee -- which surgeons reassembled with screws and a metal rod -- the changes in Miller are similarly fundamental and internal.

The day it all changed

Jenna Smith worried when she saw the numbers of the dead climbing on Internet news reports about a shooting at Virginia Tech. She tried to reach Miller, a former member of a youth group Smith led at Harrisonburg's First Presbyterian Church.

"I kept trying to call, and I remember I left her a message," Smith said. "I told her to get in the closet. Because that's what they were saying on TV ... if the person was going to shoot through the windows, to get in the closet."

Upcoming college graduations

  • Virginia Tech: The graduate ceremony is at 2:30 p.m. Friday in Cassell Coliseum with Swiss entrepreneur Stephan Bieri speaking. The undergraduate ceremony is at 7:30 p.m. at Lane Stadium with Gov. Bob McDonnell speaking.
  • New River Community College: Ceremonies are at 6:30 p.m. Friday in 117 Edwards Hall on the Dublin campus with Gary Hancock of Pulaski, chairman of the State Board for Community Colleges, as speaker.
  • Virginia Western Community College: Ceremonies are at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Salem Civic Center. Three student body leaders will address the graduates: Student Government Association Vice President Lori Dowd, Honors Institute President Charlene Friel and Phi Theta Kappa chapter Vice President Neil Francis.
  • Hollins University: Ceremonies are at 10 a.m. May 23 on the Front Quadrangle. The speaker is Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and an alumna.

Smith would find out later that when Miller was evacuated from Room 211 of Norris Hall -- where she had been shot, where her French teacher, Jocelyn Couture-Nowak, had been killed and where shooter Seung-Hui Cho had shot himself -- her cellphone had been left behind.

"And of course, I wasn't getting anything. So I started calling the angels," Smith said.

Not the celestial angels, but four of the five girls Smith mentored through the youth group known then, and now, as "The Angels."

"It's hard to explain how bonded we are," Smith said.

So close were they that Miller remembered the phone number of Cathy Meyerhoeffer, mother of one of the angels, when she couldn't remember her own parents' cellphone numbers.

Lying in the hospital with a shattered knee and three bullets in her body, the 19-year-old Miller fretted about how her family and friends would feel if they thought she were dead.

"If it had to happen, I'm glad I was in the position I was in," said Miller, now 22. "I don't know that I could have handled watching it happen to my sister, or my parents, or my friends. I don't know if I could have been an observer."

Meyerhoeffer got a message to Miller's dad, Dennis, about 10:30 a.m.

Her mom, Lolly Miller, was teaching classes at James Madison University, and while she knew there had been a shooting at Tech, she didn't know her daughter was among the wounded.

But when a colleague came to her classroom, Lolly Miller said she knew something had happened to her child. She screamed.

Heidi Miller has never described to her parents what she saw or what she felt in that classroom. But the day after she was shot, she told them she wanted to graduate from Tech.

World traveler

After five days at Montgomery Regional Hospital, Miller went home, essentially bedridden. Her parents hooked up a baby monitor between rooms, so she could summon them during the night.

"It was like having an infant in the house again," Lolly Miller said. "We did that twice with Heidi."

And Heidi Miller didn't like it the second time.

Motivated by a fierce desire to regain the independence she experienced in college, Miller worked hard at the grueling and painful physical therapy. In a matter of weeks, she could walk again. And she was elated to go back to Tech in the fall of 2007.

But as the year wore on, a new and unpleasant phase of life as a survivor began. In addition to media attention and scrutiny, Miller found herself immersed in paperwork. Medical bills were coming in, and requests had to be made for state reimbursements. There seemed always to be a form to sign or a decision to make or a news report to remind her.

And Miller got scared -- "scared that my life would constantly be this swirl of activity around April 16th," she said. "It takes away things from how you can live your life. It just changes everything."

Having survived the shootings, she worried that she might lose herself in the bureaucratic aftermath.

When school let out in 2008, Miller headed to the airport.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she had been afraid to fly to Florida to visit extended family. But after the shootings, "she flew out for everywhere," her father said.

In all, Miller spent 10 weeks traveling through Europe that summer -- sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

It was a chance to "do something big and do something fun and for myself and so completely not related to April 16th," she said. "I was able to just be Heidi Miller."

Greece, France and Germany. Ireland, England and New Zealand. In three years, she's been abroad four times. Some were simple vacations or academic programs. One was paid through a scholarship offered to the shooting survivors.

But they all served a single purpose, reminding Miller that she could be again the girl who rarely says no to a new experience, from exploring another country on her own to dancing at the Floyd Country Store.

'I am OK'

While Miller is not over the tragedy -- and may never be -- she said she no longer has to remind herself that she one day will be OK.

"I am OK," she said.

"I don't think it's only been this great learning experience -- because it takes away things," she said.

But, like the bullet she still carries in her abdomen, she has integrated it into her life.

"I experience a wider range of emotions -- true sadness, true joy and everything in between."

And a certain pride is evident when she talks about how she and the other survivors have gone on with their lives and their careers.

"None of us chose to sit down and just stop," she said.

There are things she doesn't think about. She doesn't dwell on why the shootings happened. She hasn't read the state panel report that analyzes the causes and the failures. She doesn't talk about Cho very often. And when she does, it is matter-of-fact.

"I just think he was so far down that path, there was nothing we could have done to stop him," she said.

But Miller chokes up when talking about her friends and family and the fear and pain she knows they felt when she was hurt -- "what I put them through."

She is passionate when she talks about the police and rescue workers, who ended the "12 minutes of hell" in Norris Hall.

"I would never want them to think they failed me, because they didn't," she said. "I want them to know I still think about them pretty often, and I am grateful.

"I will never know what they went through. They are victims that often get overlooked," she added.

Where there may have been mistakes, the Millers forgive.

"It was a unique situation," Dennis Miller said. "It's easy to look back and see what went wrong. But at that point, I can see why in the heat of the moment some decisions were made."

But the Millers don't judge the responses of other families, either. They accept those who are angry or who have turned their pain into political activism or who have filed civil suits to call officials to account.

In the end, the Millers say they are everyday people who experienced a tragedy, and where it was possible, made something good of it.

For Lolly Miller, it was nurturing new relationships and strengthening old ones.

For Wendy Miller, now a nursing student at James Madison University, it was finding her calling by watching the professionals who cared for her sister.

For Heidi Miller, it was all those things, and more.

The relationships with her family, especially her sister, have deepened and matured. Her friends, always important to her, are even more precious now.

And there is a confidence. Miller knows from experience that as long as she lives, she can choose how she will deal with whatever happens.

One last vigil

Four weeks ago, on the third anniversary of the shootings, the Miller women -- Heidi, Wendy and Lolly -- ran the 3.2-mile "Run of Remembrance" at Tech.

Then they ate a picnic lunch on blankets on the Drillfield, surrounded by Miller's dad and those school friends who had sat in the hospital waiting room three years ago.

Then they stood in a crowd of 12,000 at dusk, holding lighted candles at the vigil -- their last together as a family, at least for a while.

Miller sat them all down on New Year's Day and explained that she doesn't think she'll return to Blacksburg on April 16, 2011.

And she asked them to try this year "to tie up some parts of it, because I just can't keep carrying it around anymore. And it's hard when I know you all are carrying it around."

Instead, Miller plans to be in Philadelphia, where she's landed a two-year contract as an English teacher for special needs students through the Teach for America program, part of the AmeriCorps national service network.

She'll likely be dealing with inner city kids who must face seemingly insurmountable problems -- learning disabilities, addiction, violence.

Miller said she hopes she can model for them a way through those difficulties and build for them a support network such as the one she had.

The shootings "pushed me to the limit of physical capacity and emotional trauma," she said. "But I'm not stopping. You can't give up on being carefree again."

Miller chuckled when talking about how surprised her family and some of her friends were at her choice to become a teacher. They imagined her overseas or at the U.S. State Department, where she interned in 2009.

But she said she's pretty sure her teachers through the years, including Couture-Nowak, would understand her decision.

From the shootings to now, Miller has been helped by a string of people passionate about their work -- from Couture-Nowak, who was "just so good" at teaching, to her counselor, surgeon and physical therapist.

"You could tell they were doing what they love. I want nothing less," Miller said.

Teaching will "either be the thing I want to do for the rest of my life, or just another experience," she said.

Sitting in the disheveled Foxridge apartment she shares with three other young women, Miller said she is relieved to have the third anniversary behind her. The cap and gown hang in her closet. The announcements have been mailed.

"I want graduation to not be about April 16th. I want it to be about what I did as a normal college, four-year academic career. And I want it to be a celebration of that," she said.

"When I leave this place, there is so much more that will happen to me."

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