The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

Plato's Quest for Peace

By Jim Belshaw


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 consciousness.

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 stories.

"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 instances.

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 other people."

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 brothers?"

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 names.

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 receive them.

"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."

   

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