A Soldier’s Story

Larry Shook is finally coming home from Vietnam.

On a day that seems like a lifetime ago I stepped off the elevator onto the third floor of the Peyton Building and, within minutes, met Larry Shook.

Larry Shook delivering his Memorial Day sermon.
Larry Shook delivering his Memorial Day sermon.

It was late June 1980. I was a very young reporter, and Larry was then the publisher of Spokane Magazine, a fine publication that hosted terrific writers including Patrick McManus, William Stimson, Karen Dorn Steele, and C.R. Roberts. Larry was movie-star handsome with a well-coiffed shock of black hair, starched white shirt with a dark tie flowing from a buttoned down collar. He was smart, and witty, and passionate about journalism.

I’d left a newspaper job in central Washington the month before because the publisher lacked the nerve to run hard-hitting stories I’d developed as a police reporter. What I soon learned working as a staff writer at Spokane Magazine is that Larry had as much courage as anyone I’d ever met.

Spokane Magazine was a victim of the recession of the early 1980s. But, through our work, Larry and I had become good friends. Over the ensuing twenty five years, we collaborated on several major reporting projects, beginning with a grant-funded newspaper series looking at secrecy and the history of radiation releases from Hanford’s plutonium plants. We became clients of the Center for Justice in 2000 shortly after we teamed up to report on the veins of fraud that ran through the City of Spokane’s public/private partnership with the Cowles family real estate subsidiaries.

It’s only been in recent years that Larry began to share with me his experience in Vietnam. That sharing came in bits and pieces, and mostly in the form of anecdotes about the comrades he’d served with. Yet, he also told me he regarded the Vietnam war as a crime and that he was struggling, deeply, with what he’d been a part of, and what he’d witnessed.  Mostly, though, we talked about other things, quite a bit of which wound up in our journalism.

Last fall, though, Larry’s life took a dramatic turn. The two of us had gone to visit an old friend—retired Unitarian minister Bill Houff—following the passing of Bill’s wife. It turned out to be a warm and uplifting visit under the circumstances, but as we got to the parking lot to leave, Larry suddenly began trembling. He was convulsed in emotional anguish.

What I didn’t know then is that a month earlier, driving at dusk on a back road returning from Idaho, he’d struck a deer that was crossing the highway. He and his passenger were uninjured, but the bloodshed from the strike was gruesome and, within 24 hours, it triggered a vicious spasm of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I can’t well describe the daily struggles that ensued for him in the weeks and months that followed. In order to begin to heal, he had both to confront and talk about his darkest memories from Vietnam. Not only has he done that but, as you can see from the video embedded in this post, Larry recognized that his story was part of a much larger saga.

On one level it is about the grievous injuries to the soul that are inflicted upon soldiers who survive combat. Those injuries are reflected in the grim facts that more than twenty U.S. veterans take their lives every day, and that among active duty soldiers, more die from suicide than are killed by enemy fire.

On a deeper level, Larry sees his experience, and those of his comrades in Vietnam, as a tragic lesson about the cost of American militarism.

It is the whole of it—the intimate toll on the soldiers, and the collective loss and costs for the rest of us—that Larry composed for the sermon he was invited to give on Memorial Day weekend at the Unitarian church in Spokane. Larry entitled his sermon, “Grace and Me: A Forbidden Tale of War.” He gave the sermon twice on May 26th and then, again, on May 30th. The sermons were filmed by Spokane videographer Don Hamilton, whose team at Hamilton Studios has been working to document Larry’s story.

Judging by the reception he’s received, Larry’s message is resonating far beyond Spokane. This coming week he’s been invited and will be attending the Warrior’s Song retreat in Philadelphia. The Warrior’s Song project was founded by Iraq war veteran and musician Jason Moon for the purpose of using music and other creative arts to aid in the healing of combat veterans. Larry is also at work on a memoir encompassing his Vietnam experience and his struggle with PTSD.

Given how our life journeys have been intertwined for three decades (I think of Larry as my older brother) I can’t possibly explain how I felt on May 26th, watching this brave, dear friend and colleague bare his soul before his community. As you’ll see, it wasn’t easy for him. Nor was it easy for his audience. People were in tears all around me. I  remember thinking that it was so important that this story get told. I can’t imagine anybody better to tell it.

—Tim Connor

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