July 23, 2019

Through the Eyes of a National Guardsman

This past May, America remembered the 40th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State University, an incident in which the National Guard was called in to “keep the peace.” While not present at Kent State, Catholic Journal contributor, Donald Wittmer, was present during another national tragedy during the summer of 1967- the Detroit riots. This is his story.

I feel sorry for students who attended Kent State during some very difficult times in our country.  But, in reality, no one will ever care or give a damn about the National Guard troops who were pawns in a reaction to a situation that was beyond the understanding of the politicians at the time.

I can remember being part of a National Guard Unit (during the Detroit riots) assigned to protect Fire Station 26 at Alter Road and Warren in Detroit in July of 1967.  While attempting to extinguish a blaze on the lower Eastside of Detroit, the firefighters and the small unit of National Guard troops that I was part of and assigned to protect, drew rifle fire from the windows of an adjacent building.

We had carbines with no ammunition, helmet liners made of heavy plastic in lieu of actual metal helmets, no actual leadership, and we were expected to risk our lives in a situation for which we were unprepared.  When the bullets came too close to risk staying on, the fire chief of the unit disconnected the hoses and we boarded the fire truck. We left the area and the buildings to burn down rather than risk the lives of the men.

Most of these stories went unreported because it reflected a situation that the State and Federal Government did not want to address.  It was not until the 101st Airborne troops were assigned to Detroit that the situation was brought under control.  The Michigan Army National Guard was thrown into the streets in an unsuccessful attempt to make the politicians look good.

As a former National Guardsman, my sorrow goes out to the students and families impacted at Kent State; but also to the unprepared, inexperienced, and untrained Guardsmen that were thrown into situations there and in Detroit.

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Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer