Vietnam veteran recounts student protests at MU

Sunday, May 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:37 a.m. CDT, Sunday, May 4, 2014
John Betz stands on the Francis Quadrangle, where he watched a protest of the Vietnam War unfold on May 11, 1970, in front of Jesse Hall. Betz is a Vietnam War veteran. He said that at the time of the MU protests, he was trying to reconcile his feelings about what he saw in Vietnam and his family's views on patriotism. He said watching the protests solidified his view that the the war was immoral.

COLUMBIA — John Betz was back from Vietnam barely two years when four students at Kent State were killed while demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

At 23, Betz returned home to his blue-collar family in Columbia, where he started back to school and read city meters on the side to make money. He heard about the Kent State shooting on the news and was working when the MU student protests began.

"The police were down in the basement of the Municipal Building, putting on their SWAT team stuff, putting on their helmets and strutting around," he said. "I remember there were four or five of them putting on all this riot gear."

Betz watched protest coverage on television and, drawn to it, wanted to get a closer look and hear what protesters were saying. Onsite, he elected to watch from the sidelines.

"I was on the outskirts lurking on a number of those demonstrations, including the big one, so I could run real fast," Betz said. "I just remember the energy that was there, the electricity, the excitement."

From where he stood, student protesters were "controlled and sensible," Betz said. "The students seemed to me very much professional. They'd done their homework. They had their thoughts together. They had questions they wanted answers to."

The Kent State shootings divided the community, Betz said.

"At the time, I was confused by people that I knew," he said. "In my blue-collar world, I saw people saying, 'They shouldn't have been there in the first place.'"

Betz said others took a different view of the Kent State shootings: "This thing's got to stop. This thing's got to end. We've got to have answers, and somebody's got to have the courage to stop it.

"You had both of those things going on in Columbia."

And for Betz, now 67 and president of the mid-Missouri chapter of Veterans for Peace, the Kent State protests were the turning point in his way of thinking about the war, he said.

"I'm standing there as a representative of a community that often goes against this sort of thing," Betz said, "and all I was thinking was, 'You're right, you're right, you're right.'"

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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