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Veteran's 'release' creates a Vietnam narrative

Island author Gary Prisk released a fictional book with a story that takes place during the Vietnam War era.  - Brad Camp
Island author Gary Prisk released a fictional book with a story that takes place during the Vietnam War era.
— image credit: Brad Camp

“Dig-It was in one piece – his mama could caress his face one last time. As fear percolated through a cycle of shock, pushing at his reason, Hardin’s throat had tied itself into a knot. He sucked at the saliva in his mouth and swallowed. ‘Come on Dig-It. Your black ass is goin’ home.’”

–Chapter Two: Dig-It Johnson, killed in a helicopter while on his way home.

Generally, one year in a mortal’s mystifying passage from birth to death is no more significant than another.

And then there’s the year Gary Prisk spent as an infantry line officer in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It was 1967-68, when the ground war and the death it caused peaked. An airborne brigade, for example, had some 1,800 men in it at any given time; a total of 1,011 men died while serving with the 173rd during a two-year period, which included Prisk’s time in purgatory.

Somehow he lived to tell about it, though the cost to him was exorbitant and it took him 40 years to exorcise at least some of his demons with the writing of a novel titled, “Digger Dogface Brownjob Grunt.”

The 512-page narrative is Prisk’s assiduous account of his death-defying experience, though he eventually decided to write it fictionally in an effort to protect the innocent. What he created is a testimony to what happened to infantrymen who, specifically, after surviving the carnage of the Battle of Dak To and other campaigns, continued to carry out search and destroy missions on foot in the Central Highlands.

The book is written through the vigilant eyes of baby-faced Lt. (“El Tee”)/Capt. Edward Hardin, whose compelling flashbacks to his childhood with a military father offers profundity to the story.

In real life, the father was Maj. Edward Prisk, a U.S. Army infantry officer who served as a liaison officer with Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and Gen. Omar Bradley during World War II. “The Major,” as he’s referred to in the book, retired to Bremerton in the 1950s and saw both of his boys dutifully join the Army before his death in 1967.

One of the appeals of the book is that it doesn’t glorify war by regurgitating one firefight after another. Instead of creating heroes, it painstakingly chronicles the systematic disintegration of the quintessence of the American men with whom he fought, soldiers whose mission was to “close with and kill the enemy.” How did they manage? Often by becoming brotherly and protective of each other, but drugs and alcohol also kept them going until they either succumbed or went home to face their memories.

Prisk, a Poulsbo resident who has been a successful contractor/developer on Bainbridge Island since moving back to Kitsap County in 1972, admits he continues to wrestle fitfully with war’s aftermath. But a turning point occurred 20 years ago when he attended the murder trial of Packrat, a former soldier in his platoon who lost both legs when a booby trap exploded. Prisk understood why the man must serve life in prison for killing a police officer, but his frustration with the indifference displayed by the system toward the war victim drove him to finally face his own anguish.

“I guess the real message is you don’t get home again if you never leave where you had these experiences,” he said during an interview. “The anticipation of death over a long period of time, mixed with actual combat that at times can be a relief because it interrupts the expectation of dying, never goes away. And there’s always that guilt of killing... and the guilt of living.”

After leaving the Army, he hid himself at the University of Washington for three years in search of a post-graduate degree. But being indoors was unnerving so he turned to coaching youth baseball and home building, which helped release the stress. He was good at it, too, eventually building the island’s Winslow Green development. But there was incessant inner turmoil: he slept nightmarishly; his fits of anger were episodic; and he tried to hide his pain from his wife, Linda, and children Kimberley and Karl.

Fortunately, his wife was a rock for him. “Linda has had unbelievable patience and support,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky.”

Still, the inner struggle was constant.

“After a while you realize that since we, you know, the grunts, were the ones to shoot people, we’re the only ones who get the memories,” he said.

His anger was often indiscriminate, except for when it was directed at the generals who knew what was happening behind the wire but chose to ignore it and the politicians who were clueless. Regardless, he realized, he and the others who carried out their orders were forever tormented.

“It’ll never go away. They say it’s a chemical mix of some sort. I know you lose your soul, and I’m not sure you ever get it back. The VA tries to talk to you about it, but I just never let them in. I manage. I talk to myself a lot.”

Sometimes he found himself driving to Tacoma and ending up in Olympia without realizing it.

“I killed people every day and I still do... in my mind,” he said. “I guess it’s a reaction to being ambushed. I still find myself looking for symmetry in the bushes... things that don’t belong. I’m doing that 42 years later. But I keep a rope on it.”

When his son began ski racing in the late 1980s, Prisk started writing down some of those memories while sitting around ski lodges. The release felt good, so he decided to write a chronology of his experiences.

“At first, I just wanted to write it down, nothing more,” he said. “My dad never did that... there was no thread to tie all the things together.”

But he began to enjoy the process and eventually became infatuated with the written word.

After three years of sorting out the events, his thoughts and emotions, he realized he might be able to write a memoir. Fortunately, he received some good advice from some literary friends who told him he should write a novel. Eighteen months later he had meticulously changed all of the names and had typed his recollection into a computer.

“It would have helped if I knew something about the English language,” he said, but he plugged away until he discovered Laurie Rosen, a Sarasota, Fla.-based book editor who specializes in helping novices. In 2000 he sent her his first draft, which was 230,000 words, about the length of three average-sized books these days.

Rosen wrote Prisk that she was impressed “by the singular intelligence of your expression” and a narrative “with a depth and texture that is unique and rare.”

She could see while reading Prisk’s first draft (there would be two more) that he had the talent, dedication and passion to produce a first-rate novel. She cut the final 48,000 words in 2005, and after two technical edits he found a publisher, Bainbridge’s Cougar Creek Press, which published 5,000 books three months ago.

Rosen wrote in an email: “He reframed true events as fiction, which allows the audience to identify strongly with his narrative. He introduced fiction elements such as theme, characterization, dialogue, and dramatic unity, all built around his experiences in Vietnam, which allowed him to show his story rather than tell it.”

Prisk’s tome is essentially an anti-war story, but its appeal “is that it’s a people story,” as Rosen put it. “People want to read about people, and Gary’s characters are realistic. Readers can identify with them and their struggles and dreams.”

While Prisk initially wrote to purge himself, the strenuous reality of rewriting and refining tested his resolve. Rosen’s tutelage was instrumental in keeping him focused, but there was more to it.

Eventually he realized his experiences may have a higher calling – to offer hope to the men who come home from war and to the families whose loved ones don’t.

In other words, a book for the ages.

“Hours later filled with cake and coffee, he embraced the pulse of an inner strength he had not had in years. Dig-It’s mom gave him a hug. No longer would she wonder how her son had died, or if someone cared. Eddie looked back over the porch, wondering if he could come back. He waved instead; knowing this visit was a memory he could hold on to.”

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