Bob Plato asked his sister to read the names on The Wall. The
lung cancer that would kill him in ten days already had
clouded his eyesight, though few people knew it. He neither
wanted nor sought even the most heartfelt sympathy. So he told
only a handful of people that his eyesight was failing.
Sheila Meyer stood behind her brother's
wheelchair at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington,
D.C., and read the names of the dead. Unaware of the
directories available to locate names on The Wall, she simply
started with the ones right in front of her.
Bob listened for familiar names, knowing
the wait would be brief. His three tours of duty in Vietnam
with the First Air Cav virtually guaranteed that Sheila would
not read long before the memories flooded back into his
When he heard a name he recognized, he
cried, and Sheila cried with him. Each successive name brought
more tears, and Sheila wondered if it was such a good idea to
bring him to Washington. But how could she not? Her brother
was dying. In a week and a half, two days after Easter, he
would be gone. His last wish was to visit The Wall.
She had not looked forward to bringing
Bob to Washington. She worried that it would do more harm than
good. But she knew he wanted it more than anything.
Everyone knew it-the nurses in the VA
hospice unit, the Ohio Veterans Service Commissioners, the
World War II vets who pitched in to help pay for the trip, the
local Ohio VVA chapters, the disabled Vietnam vet, a First Cav
brother, who would meet Bob Plato only once and bond with him
like he had with no other.
Bob Plato wanted to see The Wall before
he died. He succeeded-and the wish's fulfillment touched more
people than he-or they-could have anticipated.
The Montgomery County Veterans Service
Commission (VSC) had informally adopted the hospice unit at
the Dayton (Ohio) VA Medical Center. Volunteers gave time to
brighten the final days of dying veterans. So it was not too
surprising that VSC director Denver Combs would receive a call
from the hospice unit concerning a patient.
Nurse practitioner Margaret Kruckemeyer,
a Vietnam-era veteran herself, told him of Robert Plato, a
50-year-old veteran dying of lung cancer. She said his last
wish was to see The Wall. But she had doubts that he would
live to make the trip to Washington. If any effort were to be
made to bring the wish to fruition, it had to be done quickly.
Bob Plato's life expectancy was being estimated in days.
Denver Combs called Catherine Greene,
coordinator of the Agent Orange Class Assistance Program
(AOCAP) in Ohio. AOCAP was one of a handful of organizations
able to provide direct assistance. The program kicked in $175.
Greene told Denver Combs that VVA Chapter
670 in Columbus was planning a trip to The Wall in late April.
Combs said he doubted Bob Plato would live that long. He
talked to then chapter president Bob Jumper about Plato's
hope. The chapter contributed $150.
Dave Bradley, director of Franklin
County's VSC office and VVA national service officer in Ohio,
was scheduled to attend a statewide meeting of Veterans
Service Commission officers.
But initially Bradley had doubts about
the Plato appeal. He had been active in veterans affairs for
many years, and the experience had bred a wariness of war
"Quite honestly, some of the things you
hear, you never know if they're fabricated or not,
particularly when you're in the business I'm in," he said.
"With the job I have here [veterans assistance], people come
in with all kinds of stories, and then they turn out not to be
true. So I was skeptical."
By the time Bradley attended the
conference of county VSC commissioners, his skepticism had
been laid to rest, but he still had doubts about the propriety
of the VSC becoming involved. In his 13-year involvement in
veterans affairs, he had never seen a request like this.
Addressing the conference, he presented
the request for assistance to help Plato travel to Washington.
A review of the bylaws resulted in the motion being ruled out
of order by the meeting's parliamentarian at the next day's
meeting. The commissioners did not want to set a precedent for
an action that might be difficult to repeat in future
But the parliamentarian had another idea,
an unofficial one.
"He said, 'We've got a box here, and if
people see fit, they can put five bucks in the box,'" Dave
Bradley said. '"It's your choice. "The box will be at the door
when you leave.'"
They collected $1,010.
"They did it because he [Plato] was a
veteran," Bradley said. "The man who made the suggestion was
one of the older guys, a World War II veteran. The guy said,
'I can't remember anything like this happening.' There are
some hard-nosed people up there, and there are some splits
between Vietnam and World War II vets, but once you've
established yourself, you're OK. At the time, I was mildly
surprised, but looking back on it, it's something I probably
should have expected from folks like that."
The Champaign County VSC donated another
$300. VVA Chapter 97 (Montgomery County, Dayton) gave $250 and
participated in Plato's funeral service and the Washington
send-off the week before he died.
It was at that send-off that Mike Roy,
the president of Chapter 97, found himself being hailed by a
man he had never met.
"We had a meeting in the hospital before
we were supposed to see him," Roy said. "I was getting ready
to get into the elevator to go up, and he was coming from
another part of the hospital, and I don't know why or what,
but as soon as he saw me, he started hollering, 'Mike! Mike!'
And I'm thinking, 'Well, jiminy Christmas, how does this guy
know me, when I didn't even know who he was?' He knew who I
was before I ever introduced myself."
They had not served in Vietnam together,
but each had been with the First Air Cav. Roy thinks it might
have been that connection that Plato responded to.
Or it might have been the Cav hat Roy
wore. He thinks that could have caught Plato's attention.
Or it might have been the way they met in
the hospital hallway-each in wheel chairs. Both men had
suffered catastrophic illness; both knew pain. Bob Plato was
dying from cancer; Mike Roy, 48-years-old, had suffered a
heart attack at 37, diabetes, arthritis, bone deterioration in
his hip joints, and chronic lymphangitis, an inflammation of
the lymphatic system in his legs that he attributes to
exposure to Agent Orange.
The men had much in common, but it was
their differences that struck Mike Roy.
"He didn't get angry like I do," he said.
"I get mad about being stuck in a wheel chair. I didn't get
mad about being shot [hip and arm in Vietnam], but to be
sprayed with a chemical and then be lied to about it, the
constant denial, that made me mad. One of the things Bob's
death inadvertently did was bring the Agent Orange issue back
into focus again. I feel like I've known this guy all my life.
I don't know why. It hurt real bad when he died. I felt so
close to him."
Margaret Kruckemeyer, the nurse who would
be the last person to see Bob Plato alive, said he might have
lived more in the final three weeks of his life than in all
the years that preceded them.
"You could see him grow," Kruckemeyer
said. "You could see a light in his face that's hard to
describe. This was a person who didn't want his picture taken
or anything else. Suddenly, he wanted to share himself with
The first time Denver Combs saw Bob
Plato, the VSC director gave Plato a desk flag set with an
American and POW flag. He suggested that Plato keep it on his
dresser at the hospice unit.
Plato said, "Mr. Combs, if you don't
mind, can I take it to The Wall and leave it with my
Combs sensed that the dying veteran
needed to find a peace within himself and that the place he
would find it would be in Washington. He told Plato that The
Wall sounded like a good place to leave a desk flag set.
"When he came back, he was a totally
different person," Combs said. "I have pictures of him before
he went to The Wall, and he was just a shell. He could feel
nothing. There was no life in him. He came back, and he had
this smile on his face, and he was a different man. I've never
seen anyone change the way he did. He was like a zombie before
he went. When he came back, he was uplifted and at peace, like
he'd had a ton of burden lifted from him."
Sheila Meyer and other family members
tried to raise money to make the trip to Washington, but they
couldn't do it quickly enough. So Sheila took out a $1,500
loan from the bank. Catherine Greene had told her to trust the
veterans groups, that they would come up with the money to pay
off the loan. They did.
The problem now was how to get her
brother to Washington.
Bob couldn't survive an airplane flight,
and time was running out. So they packed everyone into a van,
and on the last weekend in March, they drove to Washington.
Near The Wall, they met Bob's brother,
Gene, who had come unexpectedly. Television news crews rushed
to meet the veteran and his family as Sheila pushed the
wheelchair toward the memorial. She made her way through the
crowd and approached The Wall, where Bob asked her to read the
After a few minutes of listening to
Sheila's recitation of names, Bob said he wanted to touch The
Wall. He leaned forward in the wheelchair to press his palm
against the cool granite. Sheila stepped around from behind
the wheelchair and put one hand on her brother's leg.
"It's like you're drawn to touch The
Wall" she said. "You're compelled to touch it. Then you get
this peaceful feeling coming from it. I don't understand it.
It's just there. People say there is this energy coming from
The Wall. They're right. It's like a mild static electricity
that flowed right through him and into me. I could feel it. I
could feel this prickling in my body. And after you've been
there and done this, there's this peace that comes over you, a
peacefulness; it's indescribable.
"When we got to the end of The Wall the
first time, I could tell just by the way he was sitting that
something had changed," Sheila said. "The stress had been
relieved. The worry lines were gone, and right up to the hour
of his death, the worry lines never came back. He said a piece
of him was in The Wall, and that if he could touch it, he
would find peace in himself. He knew somehow that it would
happen. His whole body, his mannerisms, everything changed
after we'd been to The Wall. I don't know how to explain it"
The publicity surrounding Bob Plato's
visit to The Wall made its way to the Department of Veterans
Affairs, where Secretary Jesse Brown ordered an expedited
investigation into Plato's pending benefits claim. When Plato
returned to Ohio, Philip J. Ross, director of the regional VA
office presented him a check for $10,000.
Bob Plato donated $4,000 to his church,
$4,000 to the VA hospice unit, and he used the remaining money
to gather his family around him.
In those final days, as he tried to put
his affairs in order, he came across a First Air Cav belt
buckle and bolo tie, a gift from a retired command sergeant
major. Sheila Meyer said there was no question about who would
"When they did the presentation [before
the trip] at the VA center, there was a gentleman in a
wheelchair," she said. "His name was Mike Roy. That day,
instead of being in a big hurry to get back home, Bob wanted
to stay and talk to Mike. Somehow Mike had touched him, and
Bob didn't want to leave. He wanted to stay, and they talked
and talked and talked. I couldn't get my brother out of there.
They talked about Vietnam, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, Bob has
never talked about -Vietnam. It was a taboo subject. You
couldn't discuss it.'"
Not even in the years Bob lived in the
family home, when the memories flooded in and overwhelmed him,
when the nightmares awakened him almost every night-not even
then would he talk about it. Sheila said he slept with a
pistol under his pillow when he first returned from Vietnam.
When his mother forbade it, he slept with a knife.
When the nightmares came, Sheila Meyer
said she'd wake him and say, "Baby, you look like you were in
a place you didn't want to be."
On April 9, Margaret Kruckemeyer worked
an adjusted schedule. Normally a night-shift worker, she came
to work very early that morning, intent on catching up on the
work that had been piling up.
At 5:55 a.m., fifteen minutes after she
arrived, Robert Plato died in her arms.
"Even while dying, he was helping his
comrades," she said. "It made a tremendous impact on us. Dying
is a sad part of living, and he shared that with us. If you
have equal amounts of something to do, someone to love, and
something to hope for, you can find happiness. He didn't say
these things outright, but he showed us through his actions.
"When he died, his facial features showed
me he was finding something on that other side. I felt like he
had accomplished his mission in life, and God was well
pleased. Bob Plato was at peace."