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

October/November 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

A Candle In The Darkness:
The Ongoing Legacy of Sharon Ann Lane

BY JIM BELSHAW


I am thankful for this day. I am thankful for good health. Today, I will go through the day inwardly relaxed and outwardly alert. I will pay more attention to the things outside of me and less attention to the things inside of me. I believe I will be given the strength to meet whatever problems come to me. I will do my tasks one at a time and not try to cross all my bridges at once. --Favorite saying of Sharon Ann Lane

Sharon Ann Lane had been in Vietnam about seven weeks when a Soviet-made 122mm rocket detonated in the Quonset hut complex that was the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai. Rocket and mortar attacks were not infrequent, but this rocket came by itself, a lone missile in the early morning darkness. It was around five o'clock, June 8, 1969.

The next shift of nurses already was up and getting dressed for the day. Sharon Lane worked in Vietnamese Ward 4, a volunteer who chose to tend to patients most others avoided. The patients included ARVN and civilians and children the nurses loved; but the Vietnamese ward also included NVA and VC prisoners. Medical personnel rotated quickly through the ward. Most didn't care to stay long. Lane chose differently. She saw only patients who needed her.

Her former head nurse, Jane Carson, who now splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and her native South Carolina, said: "She just liked people. She was color blind. She loved the children. We all did. But a lot of nurses resented having to work on the ward that had POWs, people who injured our guys. But Sharon liked the Vietnamese people, and she wanted to remain there.''

The rocket hit almost dead center in the Quonset hut complex. It injured many patients. It killed Sharon Lane, the only woman in the American armed forces killed by enemy fire in the Vietnam War. She was a month shy of her 26th birthday.

"It was devastating for the hospital,'' Carson said. "Everyone was in a stupor for a while. But we didn't talk about it. We didn't grieve. We went back to work. Part of my difficulty was that I was always afraid I wouldn't have the skills for the next patient, the knowledge, the courage to do it. After a while, you forgot about any concern for your safety, and it was more being able to measure up when the time came. You went on automatic pilot. You just didn't want to lose one of those guys or one of those women or one of those children. It was a defeat each time. Death was our enemy every day.''

Like so many other Vietnam veterans, Carson took the war deep inside herself. It stayed there for a long time.

"It took me literally years, 17 or 18, to even start thinking about it again,'' Carson said. "I met Sharon's mom at the dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial in 1993. That was the starting point for me to come to grips with some of this stuff.''

In November of that year, Kathleen Fennell, another nurse and Vietnam veteran, flew across the Pacific on the long voyage back to Vietnam. She, too, had not spoken of it for years. Then Fennell got involved in Operation Smile, a volunteer surgical mission that traveled to the developing countries of the world to repair cleft lip and palate deformities. In 1993, she found herself headed to a place filled with memories.

She asked her husband, with whom she served in Vietnam during the war, to accompany her. A medical technician during the war and now a physician, her husband at first declined. He said he didn't want to go. Later, he relented. They have been back many times since.

"If the guys became invisible after the war, the women became more invisible,'' Fennell said. "We simply put everything aside as best we could and went on with our lives. You just didn't deal with it.''

Someone gave her a book to read on the long flight--Hostile Fire: The Life & Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, by Philip Bigler. Fennell didn't know Sharon Lane. But the story of her life and death in Vietnam stayed with Fennell. The following year, when she returned to Vietnam on another medical mission, an idea germinated.

In 1999, she contacted Sharon's mother, Kay Lane, in Canton, Ohio, and asked permission to name a clinic in Vietnam in Sharon's honor. Mrs. Lane gave her blessing.

Construction began in 2000. The Sharon Ann Lane Foundation www.sharonannlanefoundation.org was established in 2001. In the spring of 2002, the clinic was dedicated.

"We decided to locate the clinic in Chu Lai, where Sharon served,'' Fennell said. "Donations came mostly from veterans. The clinic is now open and serving the population about two kilometers from where Sharon was killed. Patients are being treated in obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. They want us to develop a public health program that would take medical staff into rural areas to deliver care on infectious diseases and for elderly people who can't come into the clinic."

In May 2003, having been honored by numerous civic, military, and medical organizations, Sharon Lane was posthumously awarded the Ohio Medal of Valor and inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.

Pat Powell, president of VVA Chapter 199, The Sharon Ann Lane Chapter, traveled to Vietnam in 2001 to see the beginnings of the clinic.

"She was such a kind, caring, compassionate person,'' Powell said. "She was a true nurse. She didn't look at the face or color of the patient. She looked at the wound and the person who needed to be healed. When I went to Vietnam, the clinic was just beginning to be built. I was just happy that it was actually being put up. For the Vietnamese to allow us to construct a clinic, there was a miracle in itself.''

Kathleen Fennell sees the clinic as the closing of a circle, a continuation of the spirit Sharon Ann Lane infused into the care of her patients.

"It was apparent this woman was like a candle in the darkness,'' she said. "Her presence and example reminded us all that it didn't make a difference which uniform a man or woman might wear. They were all patients. She was there for a purpose, I believe. She did something really positive, and we feel she can be remembered best by a clinic that continues the care she gave to people. She recognized the Vietnamese as human beings, and she was regarded by her patients with a great deal of love and affection. You can't make that happen. Patients, regardless of what country they come from, either feel that way about their nurses or they don't. She was unique.''

One particular visit to the clinic stands out in Fennell's memory. She quietly played with two children, one suffering a physical deformity, the other developmentally disabled. Two Vietnamese teenagers came to join them. There was no interpreter to bridge the language barrier, but none was needed. Fennell said she had never felt closer to human beings.

She thought it "weird'' being in Vietnam, the country in which Sharon died, the country in which a medical clinic had now been named after her. Vietnamese kids drew maps of the United States; they played games and sang "Happy Birthday'' in English.

"It was a sad war and cost so damn much in human suffering, but here's this clinic and what continues is Sharon's love. We're just the instruments of it,'' she said. "This building wouldn't be here were it not for the regard in which veterans held this woman. A lot of guys, regardless of the severity of their injuries, have said Sharon has become the nurse they can thank, a kind of universal nurse.''

As she reflected on the continuation of Sharon Ann Lane's work and the Vietnamese children played and sang their songs, Fennell looked over her right shoulder. She saw nothing but a wall.

"I had this distinct sense of a presence,'' she said. "But it was just a wall. It was nothing. There was no one there. I didn't see anybody. There was no weird Twilight Zone stuff or anything like that. But I thought, you know, she's here. She really is here. Whenever you step out of yourself and do something for the other guy, you have a sense of this. It doesn't have to be governments. It can be one person--Sharon Ann Lane. She accomplished this.''

   

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