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Nurse Sharon Lane Paid the Highest Price in Vietnam

Sharon Lane wrote home that she was starting the night shift soon, so she wouldn’t have to get up early. “Still very quiet around here,” she wrote. “Haven’t gotten mortared for a couple of weeks now.”

Her name seems unremarkable. A lovely smile frozen in time in a snapshot: Her face seems unremarkable. An Army nurse: a calling not remarkable, either, considering that Army nurses have been in the nation’s battles since the founding. The limited information we can find on her today tells us that Lane was dedicated, decent, and levelheaded, and deserves to be remembered for what she did rather than for what happened to her – but that is not to be.

 

Combat Zone Duty

In 1969, Lane was assigned to the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, South Vietnam, in a region where U.S. infantrymen were fighting constant battles with surging Viet Cong troops.

“She was a very gentle person, a very quiet person,” Carson remembered in a 2001 telephone interview.

Born July 7, 1943, Lane was 25 years old. She’d grown up in North Industry, Ohio, and attended Aultman Hospital School of Nursing (now Aultman College of Nursing) in Canton. She’d worked as a general-duty nurse at Aultman Hospital for 26 months before entering active duty in the Army Nurse Corps on April 18, 1968.

Vietnam War Nurses

Lt. Cmdr. Dorothy Ryan checks the medical chart of U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Roy Hadaway aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off South Vietnam. Nurses performed vital but often unheralded work during the Vietnam War. National Archives photo

Typical of young Americans joining the Nurse Corps, Lane underwent basic training at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, with the rank of second lieutenant. She was graduated in June 1968.

The Army assigned Lane to Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colo., where she worked in tuberculosis wards. While at Fitzsimons, Lane was promoted to first lieutenant and was sent to work in the cardiac division’s intensive care unit and recovery room. In early 1969, the Army ordered Lane to Vietnam, where she arrived on April 29, 1969.

That month – the exact date is not known – another Army nurse with another unremarkable name, 1st Lt. Susan Green, arrived at the 45th Surgical Hospital in Tay Ninh. Soon after, at a critical moment, she stood up to adjust an intravenous feeding device for a patient. “I’ll take care of it for you,” an Army doctor interrupted. He stood up just as a Viet Cong rocket exploded in the hospital. The physician was killed.

Green came home. Sharon Lane left no record of why she chose nursing duty in a dangerous war zone, but Green did. “My friends from high school were being drafted and I had friends who’d gone to Vietnam,” said Green in an interview in 2001. “I saw a chance to serve.”

 

Nurses Needed

The Army established a Nurse Corps as a permanent component of its medical department on Feb. 2, 1901.

But the history of these “angels of mercy,” as one soldier called them, goes back much further.

During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of American forces, asked the Second Continental Congress to authorize medical support for an Army of 20,000 men, with one nurse for every 10 soldiers. Although the women received little or no actual nursing training, they paved the way for nurses to follow.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Clara Barton to the position of superintendent of Union Nurses. Barton and her staff did much to save life and limb during the Civil War. The creation of a formal nurse corps was a logical next step.

Nurses were not authorized to become commissioned officers until 1920.

The Army had 21,480 nurses in World War I, 57,000 in World War II, 5,397 in the Korean War, and about 5,000 during the Vietnam era. There are about 2,900 nurses in the Army today. Said veteran Green: “The field offers excellent opportunities for men and women.” That was not true during World War II, when only women could be Army nurses. A change in the times was signaled in 2000 when Brig. Gen. William T. Bester became the first male chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

 

Rocket Attack

Lane did not come home.

At the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai, she worked in the intensive care ward for a few days before being assigned to the Vietnamese ward. She worked five days a week, 12 hours a day in this ward, plus an additional day each week in intensive care.

Vietnam Women's Memorial

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial is probably the most popular tribute to women’s contributions to the defense of the nation. It’s on the Washington Mall near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo by Rudi Williams, American Forces Press Service

It should have been an early stage of a bright and promising career. But on June 8, 1969, at 6:05 a.m., just as Lane was completing an overnight shift in the Vietnamese ward, the hospital came under Viet Cong mortar and rocket fire. The procedure was to get ambulatory patients under their beds and to cover those unable to move with a mattress.

Lane was busily attempting to secure patients when a Soviet-built 122 mm rocket fired by the Viet Cong struck the ward. A piece of shrapnel struck Lane in the throat. She was killed instantly.

Retired Col. Jane Carson, 59, of Santa Fe, N.M., was Lane’s commander at Chu Lai. “She was a very gentle person, a very quiet person,” Carson remembered in a 2001 telephone interview. Carson said that one or two Viet Cong prisoners of war were treated in the Vietnamese ward and that “this was a difficult experience for us because we were constantly surrounded by our own young men who’d been severely wounded by their high velocity weapons.” Carson remembered that Lane “was very compassionate toward the Vietnamese people and was one of the few who elected to work continuously with Vietnamese adults and children.”

In all, eight American military women lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Their names now appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. All eight were nurses. Seven were in the Army, one in the Air Force.

The others died of various causes, including accidents and a stroke.

For all of her important acts and deeds, Lane will be remembered most because she was the only American military woman killed by enemy action in Vietnam.

Sharon Lane was also the only American servicewoman to be awarded a Bronze Star with the “V” for valor decoration on the ribbon. She was awarded the Purple Heart medal, and other awards, posthumously.

Lane’s service and sacrifice is remembered at several memorials around the country. In 1973, Aultman Hospital erected a bronze statue of Lane. The names of 110 local service members killed in Vietnam are on the base of the statue.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-213914">

    Robert F. Dorr’s article is splendid for several reasons — first, for giving recognition to Army Nurse Sharon Lane; second, for reminding us of the wondrous history of Army Nurses and their absolutely vital role in our military power; third, because I served in the Tay Ninh and Chu Lai areas the Mr. Dorr mentions and can testify that–as always–he gets everything right.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-213918">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Thank you, Bob, for bringing to light her story. I first encountered it with my FIRST COMMAND publisher Vandamere Press who published the biography of her story. It’s a moving tale and I recommend it to everyone. Here’s the link: http://vandamere.com/hostile.htm