A couple years back, Larry Plager bought the DVDs of the Ken Burns documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”
Plager is a 69-year-old veteran of that war. Over the decades, he has read and collected hundreds of books and other materials about the war – photography, history, memoirs, videos. Unlike some of his fellow veterans, who were not inclined to talk about their wartime experiences back home, he would talk about his experiences with, as he puts it, anyone who wanted to ask.
And yet when he went to watch Burns’ series – decades after the year he spent as a combat Marine in Vietnam – he found himself unable to sit through it.
“I just didn’t want to watch it,” Plager said last week. “It was too hard.”
At around the same time, Plager had begun writing about his war experiences, composing short pieces of remembrance about his experiences and emotions as a young man at war, about the friends he lost, about interactions with villagers.
Fifty years after he arrived in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine, Plager occupies a paradoxical place with regard to Vietnam and remembering. Reading and watching the depictions of others can can make him profoundly uncomfortable. And yet writing about his own experiences has become a way of turning the act of remembering into a purging, he said.
A lot of his writing sprung from his participation in a two-year program at Gonzaga University called “Telling War,” a project that has helped veterans express themselves through storytelling. As the Telling War project drew to a close and as he found himself less interested in delving into other people’s depictions of the war, Plager settled on a way to honor the program that was helping him deal with his memories in a more productive way.
He took his boxes of Vietnam books and gave them to GU, where they are now a permanent part of the collection at the Foley Center Library.
“He told me, ‘I’m ready to get rid of them. I’m ready to let them go,’ ” said Lisa Silvestri, a GU professor who oversaw the Telling War project.
‘I’d had enough’
Plager was part of the “Evergreen State Platoon” – a contingent of 80 young men from Washington who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and got a sendoff on the Capitol steps from the governor. He’d graduated from Ferris High that spring. By the new year he would be in Vietnam.
Six of the Evergreen State Platoon would not return home.
Plager served as a rifleman, and eventually earned the rank of corporal. He describes his experiences as long periods of tense inactivity punctuated by chaos and terror.
He returned in January 1970, and eventually started a career as a technologist at local hospitals, including at the groundbreaking heart-surgery lab at Sacred Heart. He and his wife, Marsha, have three sons and three grandchildren.
Plager said that, though he knew plenty of fellow vets who never wanted to talk about their experiences, that his approach was always a little more open. He would talk to people who were curious, he would engage with their questions, he would try to see the movies – like “Platoon” – with others.
But it was always hard. Always haunting.
He had started collecting materials about the war with the Time-Life series “The Vietnam Experience.” That 25-volume project started in 1981, with the final volume published in 1988. Plager added other books; the collection grew into the hundreds. He would look at the powerful documentary photography, read about the experiences of others, revisit the politics surrounding the war.
But a few years ago, around the same time he was unable to watch the Burns series, he found that looking at the books also became more and more painful. Time wasn’t easing his wounds – the wounds that warriors bring home and often carry alone – and revisiting the war through his collection wasn’t helping.
“I’d just had enough,” he said. “I didn’t want to watch it anymore. I didn’t want to read it anymore.”
‘All this reckoning’
Silvestri, a communications professor at GU, coordinated and oversaw the Telling War project. The subject of combat and its effects on warriors is both professional and personal for her; she’s the author of “Friended at the Front: Social Media and the American War Experience.” And her own father and brother served in combat.
The Telling War project – “War Cannot Be Heard Unless It is Told” – was an effort to help veterans find ways to make sense of their own experiences through writing, songs and art. It was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and run by Silvestri and Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, an artist and arts commissioner for the city of Spokane.
Over the course of two years, veterans would gather for presentations and workshops in which they used different mediums and genres to tell stories about their experiences. Authors and artists gave presentations. An anthology of the project has been published, including poetry, prose, interviews, comics and other works created by several local vets.
“When they come home, they have all this reckoning to do. All this sense-making to do,” Silvestri said. “We owe it, as a civilian public, to our veterans to give them the space to digest it well.”
On Memorial Day, that question of the civilian debt to veterans – how large it is and how little of it has been paid – should take the spotlight. But we live in an era of widespread national forgetting, a time of constant warfare in which many of us don’t quite notice, comfortably unaware of the burdens servicemen and women carry in our midst, on our behalf.
Memorial Day is a perfect emblem of this – a day meant for honoring fallen veterans that can sometimes seem like little more than the start of grilling season and the occasion for big sales.
If people hear the stories of Plager and other veterans, it can help punctuate that fog. It might help us be smarter and more wary of current chest-thumping about sending off 120,000 American soldiers to an “easy” war against Iran. The history of the American war veteran suffering the lifelong consequences of disastrously overconfident politicians should be more than enough to make us wary of such hot, overconfident talk – if we would only listen.
Plager attended virtually every workshop in the Telling War project. Silvestri said he helped set an example, especially for some veterans of more recent war, with his positive effort to try and dig into his own war experiences and find meaning – and even a sense of release.
Plager had started writing earlier, as part of the Red Badge Project, one of many programs that use storytelling and art-making as ways to help wounded warriors. That had been suggested to him by his counselor, who was treating him for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Plager also had a friend who was writing a book, and he would send him the occasional email about his own experience. He was discovering that writing about his experiences was more powerful than talking about them; he was finding that in pursuing the craft of writing while shaping his own stories, he had found a way to engage with his memories in a more productive and useful way.
He wrote pieces about fearing death in an intense firefight, and losing friends in battle. About buying suspect “hamburgers” from villagers. About the down times between the chaos. About the napalm that would singe the hairs on his face. About wondering if the Viet Cong soldier he shot on a dark night died. About coming home and visiting the graves of friends on Memorial Day.
He’s not done remembering, now that he’s donated his books to the GU library. He’s just doing it in a different way.
“When I write these things, it does give me a certain calm and peace,” he said.
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