From victim to parent, Virginia Tech survivor reflects on school shooting

Derek O'Dell says he worries about sending child to public schools

VINTON – A generation now has grown-up with these mass school shootings becoming almost normal.

From victim, to becoming a parent, Derek O’Dell survived a gunshot wound in 2007 and said seeing what happened at Stoneman Douglas is like re-living that day.

Despite what he’s been through, he is fulfilling his life's dream, working now as a local veterinarian at a successful clinic in Vinton. Caring for animals is work he is passionate about, and also therapeutic. It’s what he refers to as his calling.

“It helps bring a little bit of happiness into others’ lives seeing their pets be well cared for,” O’Dell said.

He married the high school sweetheart he dated during his time at Virginia Tech. He and his wife Laura now have a daughter. Now a family man, he says they are his world.

Seeing the images from South Florida has been extremely tough for members of the Virginia Tech community. Nearly 11 years ago, the Blacksburg campus became the scene of the deadliest school shooting in American history.

A generation now has grown up with these mass school shootings becoming almost normal. From victim, to becoming a parent - Derek O’Dell survived a gunshot wound in 2007 and said seeing what happened at Stoneman Douglas is like reliving that day. 

“It definitely brings up memories at Virginia Tech,” O’Dell said.
The Cave Spring High School graduate was 20 years old at the time and was in German class on Tech's campus when he was shot in the arm.
Although his physical wound has healed, he carries the emotional scars with him every day, old wounds that are dug up seeing videos posted by survivors of the shooting who filmed their attack. It’s a scenario all too familiar for O’Dell.
"Seeing these cellphones videos now, it's almost a trigger response for me, going through a tragedy knowing that each one of those popping sounds is another person that could be getting killed,” O’Dell said.

Video that's hard to watch, they are scenes he actually lived through, sights and sounds he'll never forget.

"The smell of gunpowder in the room I was shot in. The smell of blood, that iron smell in the air. I just try not to watch anymore,” O’Dell said.

Surviving the deadliest school shooting in American history, O'Dell thought then it was an anomaly, but now knows it's a new norm. The feeling O’Dell describes when hearing of yet another tragedy isn’t one of anger anymore. He says it is a feeling of frustration.

“It's just this chronic fatigue of knowing that another family member has lost their child, or parent, and they are going through this again. Just a senseless tragedy continues to happen,” O’Dell said.

A painful past isn't what keeps him up at night however, it is a fear for his family's future.'

“As a parent of my own child now, that eventually will go to public school, and my wife is a teacher in a school, it's sad to think that I might not see them again because of a tragedy like this,” O’Dell said. “And we can't focus on the children’s lives to prevent this? We can't come up with something that says you know, we care about our children more than we do gun control? And that's sad as a congressperson, as a person who is a parent, a teacher that we put them in these situations that they go through active-shooter drills more than tornado drills, that we can't prevent something like this, and our solution is to just to prepare for it. That is amazingly frustrating for us as survivors."


O’Dell said he knows that the subject of a solution is a polarizing one. The debate between gun control and mental health is one he knows isn’t easily solved. He said early on after the shooting he immersed himself in learning about other mass shootings to try and see if he could find a pattern, or a cause. But he could not. “There isn’t one,” O’Dell said. Since then, he has shifted his focus moving forward, leading a successful, happy life with his family. But even a life moving forward is left with concerns when it comes to gun violence.

Back then, as a 20-year-old survivor, he said he never dreamed his daughter would face a world full of similar threats.

“Knowing what I went through, I would never wish that upon anybody, especially my own child. It's incredibly difficult to think about."

Now, he is only hoping for a solution to protect our next generation from repeating a history he narrowly survived.

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