- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Heidi Miller is grateful for many things: her classes at Virginia Tech, tennis games and anything that makes her smile.

She craves normalcy, treasuring a return to the routine she had last year as a freshman, before bullets lodged in her knee, thigh and abdomen during a rampage that left 33 dead, including the gunman.

Miss Miller remembers what happened that chilly spring day — April 16 — but cannot recapture her thoughts as she came face to face with death in a Norris Hall classroom. The 20-year-old remembers snow flurries falling as she walked to class, but not how she felt when Seung-hui Cho walked into the room with a gun in each hand.

Cho killed 25 students and five faculty members on the second floor of the building, with his last stop in Miss Miller’s intermediate French grammar class. He left once and came back as she lay completely still on the floor in the back of the room.

“It’s a small room, so no matter where he was, he was close,” she said.

Cho, 23, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger there, but Miss Miller didn’t know that until police burst in and announced, “Shooter down.”

Miss Miller knew all of her classmates, a dozen of whom Cho fatally shot.

“I do have pretty vivid memories,” she said, “but I’m able to take myself back out of it really quick.”

Miss Miller’s actions this year have helped prevent those thoughts from overtaking her. She is busy with classes — still studying French and carrying a double major in international studies and geography. And she has made time for volunteer work.

Miss Miller spent winter break working on the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans and helped in a recent community service day on campus. She teaches every week at a Blacksburg elementary school in a French program established to honor her slain instructor, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak.

“I thought it was a really positive way to sort of cope with what had happened and do something meaningful,” she said. “At the same time, whenever I do it I always smile and it’s fun, so that’s a good thing.”

As the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history approaches, Miss Miller is trying to take it as “just another step on the way,” resisting thoughts that she should have accomplished a certain amount or “feel better.”

When days are hard, Miss Miller recalls happier times.

“Even when it does get me down I can always go back to that and be like ‘you know, last week I had a really good Tuesday,’ ” she said. “It’s just a matter of time before another good day.”

Miss Miller needed four hours of surgery to repair cartilage in her knee and a broken femur. One bullet remains lodged in her abdomen.

Of the 26 students Virginia Tech lists as injured, six graduated and the other 20 have returned to school, university spokesman Larry Hincker said.

Miss Miller spent five days in the hospital and most of the summer in physical therapy.

“I’m back to doing everything I used to do,” she said. “Yesterday I played tennis. That’s my favorite sport.”

Miss Miller was on the varsity team at Harrisonburg High School, and spent part of last summer as a counselor at a tennis camp near Winchester that she has attended for years. She will go back this summer, too, though only for two weeks.

“It’s so peaceful there,” she said.

For most of the summer, Miss Miller will be out of the country, taking a humanities class that Virginia Tech offers in Greece, then staying with a German family for an immersion program to learn that language.

Being back on campus with others who endured the tragedy has been comforting, especially spending time with the few fellow survivors of the French class.

“We’re still taking some of the same classes, so they’ve become some of my close friends,” Miss Miller said. “They are there for support in ways that some people might not be able to offer.”

Friends have been especially important to her since the shootings.

“You learn to appreciate certain things more than you normally used to,” Miss Miller said. “Just hanging out with my friends all of a sudden was much more meaningful.”

A close friend, Abby Schuhart of McLean, camped out in the hospital for at least six hours with a group from a campus Presbyterian center until she could get a glimpse of Miss Miller after her surgery. The two are roommates this year.

Miss Schuhart knew Miss Miller had a French class that morning, but didn’t know for several hours whether her friend was safe. Certain things can take her back to the trauma of that day.

“I hate leaving her messages on her phone,” Miss Schuhart said. “I did that on that day when I thought she was OK and just couldn’t pick up her phone.”

The support of friends in the church group, Miss Miller said, has given her a “deeper trust that somehow everything would be OK” and enabled her to avoid turning to anger and bitterness.

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