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Vietnam Veteran Spotlight: Veteran returns to Vietnam

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After returning to Vietnam, Al Plantenga finds ‘peace in my soul’

One day in the early 1980s, more than a decade after Al Plantenga was leading search-and-destroy missions as a hot-tempered young Marine in Vietnam, he walked into the International Aid office in his hometown of Silver Lake, Michigan.

“I walked in the front door and said, ‘This may seem odd, but I want to go back to Vietnam,’” recalls Plantenga, now 68 and residing at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. “Is there a group going over there?”

The answer was yes, and before long Plantenga found himself once again in Vietnam. Only this time, his mission would not involve fighting a mysterious enemy. Instead, Plantenga would spend 10 days fixing up a Vietnamese orphanage and, in the process, “falling in love with the Vietnamese people.”

Al Plantenga.jpg

“I like to say that when I went there the first time, I was on a mission to do what our government wanted me to do,” says Plantenga, who had volunteered for the Marine Corps in the late 1960s as a 17-year-old dropout filled with pent-up anger. “But the second time, I was on a mission to find out how the Vietnamese people really were.”

The United States will recognize National Vietnam War Veterans Day on March 29, saluting the patriots such as Plantenga who fought in service to their nation and in defense of liberty in a Southeast Asian country that was half a world away. For his part, Plantenga said he is proud of his nearly three years of service and wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.

But at the same time, as the years passed and Plantenga mellowed, he realized he wanted to “make amends” and “find some peace in my soul” for his time in the war.

His time in the Vietnamese orphanage did just that. Plantenga, who like his father before him performed in barbershop quartets, recalls singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to an infant at the orphanage who fell asleep in his arms.

“Dealing with the war was tough, but I worked it out in my mind that I could help others,” he says. “If you think about it, that’s what we’re on earth to do anyway.”

Plantenga would go on to take over his family’s dry-cleaning business, marry and have two children, Al Jr. and Julie. Today, he’s retired and spends as much time as he can with his second wife, Martha, and their pet Chihuahua, Chichi, when they visit him at the veterans home.

But Plantenga also lives with PTSD, Parkinson’s and the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He says he’s having increasing trouble remembering details from his past, though the happy times still seem a bit easier to recall.

Like the day he returned to Michigan from the Vietnamese orphanage.

“I got off the airplane smiling like crazy and this guy asked me why I was so happy,” Plantenga says. “And I said, ‘Because I’m free.’”

For more information about the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, which operates the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, visit Wartime veterans who want to connect to the benefits and services they earned during their service can contact the MVAA’s Michigan Veterans Resource Service Center at 1 (800) MICH-VET (800-642-4838).