Five years ago tomorrow a gunman killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech and then took his own life. I was on campus that day. I was in class when it happened. I could have been one of those 32.
In the days that followed everyone talked about the amazing lives that were cut short – a holocaust survivor, a triple major who played in the band, a world renowned expert on biomechanics, a talented actress/dancer, a cadet training to be an intelligence officer in the Air Force, and many others. One of our responsibilities as survivors is to make sure we take advantage of the lives we still have. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail has been a dream of mine for many years, long before 2007. I can’t say that I would not be doing this had that day never happened. What I can say is that it adds an additional dimension to my hike. By following my dream I honor those we lost.
Some of you have asked why I chose the Delta Society as the charity I am supporting through this blog. Therapy dog teams were at Virginia Tech in the days after the shooting but I did not meet them. I do have a dog myself, but she is not a therapy dog. So although I have tangential relationships to therapy dogs I can understand the confusion around the lack of a direct link. I hope the following story helps explain.
Classes were cancelled for several days after the shooting. There was a convocation the day after and many students chose to go home after the ceremony. I chose to stay in town and be with friends instead. Students had erected an impromptu memorial on the drillfield near the chapel consisting of a large VT sign, candles, flowers, etc. I can’t remember which night it was, but it was after the convocation when most of the students had gone home. The campus was empty. It was around 10pm and I was at home. I felt a sudden and intense need to be at the memorial. The best way I can explain it is I felt like the victims were at the memorial and they were alone. I felt like someone needed to go be with them. I drove to campus, parked my car, walked to the memorial and sat on the bench there. A minute later I was completely in tears, overwhelmed by what had happened and how I felt.
It was at that moment, at my most depressed, that a stranger came over with his dog. The man didn’t say much. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It must be really hard.” The dog stood in front of me and let me pet it for several minutes before they walked on. I stayed a while longer, but when I finally left I felt so much better. Perhaps I would have felt better anyway, but having the man and his dog there was comforting. Sometimes I think about who the man might have been. Was he a student? Professor? Someone who lived in town? And what was he doing out so late? I’m fairly certain they were not a therapy dog team but in that moment it didn’t matter, they served the exact same purpose that therapy dogs serve every day – they help people heal.
I hope you have been enjoying my blog so far. For sharing my dream with you the only thing I ask in return is support for those who helped in the wake of the shooting. This April 16th I will be hiking 32 miles in remembrance of 32 lives. I hope you will support me by giving to those who helped the Virginia Tech community in our time of need. I have suggested Delta Society because it has a special meaning for me, but many others helped in the aftermath: The VT and Blacksburg police departments and Rescue Squads responded to the scene, churches sent priests, mental health organizations sent counselors, the Red Cross sent volunteers. If one of these or some other is closer to your heart, make a donation to them tomorrow and post about it here so I can hear about it. Feel free to pass this along to others. It would be amazing if this page were lit up by people from all over Hokie Nation showing their support.
Five years later we remember the lessons of that day: to be courageous, to reach for our dreams, to live for 32. Five years later we have prevailed, not just because we are Virginia Tech but because we are a Hokie Nation. Because we support each other in our times of need. Because we give back to those who have given us so much.