Ringgold grad reflects on Va. Tech shootings

Ringgold graduate reflects on Virginia Tech shootings

April 15, 2013
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Associated Press
Kevin Sterne is carried out of Norris Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in this April 16, 2007, photo, after the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.
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Kevin Sterne, a former Nottingham Township resident who survived the Virginia Tech shootings, now works at the university.

A bullet is still lodged in his right hip, the range of mobility in his right foot is limited, and his damaged nerves kick off some weird sensations.

“There are times when things related to the nerve damage occur, like twitching,” he said. “It’s the nerves trying to reconnect. It’s not overly apparent, but I can feel it.

“It’s like the old wives tales, where people can feel when a storm is coming. I kind of feel it in my hip from time to time.”

Reminders and flashbacks abound, of course. They always will when you were shot twice and became the international symbol of a massacre you barely survived – the student in the photo bleeding profusely while four police officers carried you, limb by limb.

But today, on the sixth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech that claimed 33 lives and changed thousands of others forever, Kevin Sterne is keenly aware of but not overwhelmed by what transpired on April 16, 2007.

“Mentally and physically, I am recovering, but there are things to this day that I have problems with or am affected by,” said Sterne, 28, a 2002 Ringgold High graduate who grew up in Nottingham Township.

“I have somewhat of a tough time when the anniversary approaches or when certain events are compared with the Virginia Tech shootings. I’m reminded of what I went though.”

He is level-headed and contemplative, though, not angry and bitter. Sterne insists “I don’t have a political stance” on gun control, even though he lost two-thirds of his blood during the incident and “was pretty much on the verge of dying.”

Sterne speaks freely of that day in which Seung-Hui Cho, a fellow Virginia Tech senior, killed 32 people and wounded 17 in two attacks two hours apart before taking his own life. It is the deadliest shooting incident by one individual ever in the United States.

Cho had been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. Sterne believes that more should be done to address mental health issues, which often are at the root of mass shootings such as the one Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., in which Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 schoolchildren and six adult staffers.

“I was kind of in disbelief that something like what I went through keeps happening,” Sterne said. “We haven’t figured out through society or legislation or whatever how to keep this from happening again.

“I come from an engineering background, and a large part of that is identifying a problem. A big problem is people who have some mental health issues and acquire guns and go off, maybe not understanding the consequences.

“Something of a solution to gun control is a lot more effort can go into solving mental health problems.”

Reflecting back nearly six years, Sterne said Thursday that he and a number of students heard loud noises but were unaware that a shooter was loose on the Blacksburg campus. “There was construction going on in some buildings, and we thought it was just that.”

He got hit twice in the right leg, one bullet striking the hip near the femur. The other passed through his thigh, ripping through the femoral artery.

Before emergency responders arrived, Sterne famously applied a tourniquet to his wounded leg, a procedure he had learned years earlier en route to becoming an Eagle Scout. It is a last-ditch medical practice to stem blood flow, but it may have saved him.

“I knew I needed a tourniquet for sure,” he said. “I could feel where the bullet had entered and knew to apply pressure and work with one of the first responders. I was losing blood and was lightheaded.”

Sterne chuckled mildly as he reflected on his medical expertise.

“My tourniquet ended up not working so well,” he said. “The medical responders put an official one on (that was more effective), but I knew I needed to put one on.”

After 12 days in a hospital, Sterne began physical therapy and preparations for commencement. A month after the massacre, with the aid of crutches, he literally walked up to be handed his diploma.

Sterne has never had qualms about returning to Virginia Tech. After receiving bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and communications, he came back for a master’s in engineering, then for a job. He has been a special research faculty member in the College of Engineering for three years.

“I didn’t let the shootings affect my decision to return,” he said. “I had a lot of friends and a lot of activities (including being an engineer with the student-run radio station). I like this area.”

Sterne likes his job and southwestern Virginia enough to buy a house in Pulaski, about 30 miles from campus. He and his fiancee, Kacey Smith of Arlington, Wash., will be married this fall.

Making it back to his roots has been difficult. Sterne said his parents retired and moved to Florida in 2009 and that he has no other relatives in Southwestern Pennsylvania. But he did return a year or so ago and hopes to do so this summer.

“I actually miss the city and all the great places to eat,” Sterne said. “Downtown, walking around Oakland, not to mention the old country roads in Eighty Four. I still follow the Steelers and Penguins.”

In the meantime, the healing continues. Sterne does have that nerve damage in his right leg and said he has range-of-mobility problems with his right foot because it did not get sufficient blood during the application of the tourniquet. He does not limp.

Mentally, he is getting stronger, too.

“The theme is: This is something that happened,” Sterne said, before adding a sentiment that is almost as incredible as his story.

“This is not among those 10 things I will remember throughout my life. I’m sure many more things will be more important.”

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012. Previously, he was a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won numerous awards, including a Golden Quill, an O-R staff Golden Quill award, and four other writing awards during his 40 plus years working for daily newspapers. A lifelong Pittsburgher, he is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh.

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