The statue in the courtyard at Aultman Hospital on this stormy spring day is of 1st Lt. Sharon Lane, the only American nurse killed by enemy fire in Vietnam. She was from Canton, and studied here. The local Vietnam Veterans chapter bears her name. And, some of its members get together for coffee and to talk over the annual remembrance of her death coming up this month.
At a breakfast place
not far from the hospital, we start with chapter President Pat Powell, a Vietnam era veteran:
“I was in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1969, state-side.”
Next is Clarence Rease:“Most of my friends call me Butch, I was Army, drafted in 1965, and got out in 1967.”
And now, Frank Kemp: "I served in the Marine Corps, 1966 to 1968…Third Recon.”
Moving toward the corner: "Richard Arthur; I was with the 4th Infantry, Pleiku.”
And, around the corner: "Cpl. Glen Conley. Spent two years in the Marines, ‘68 to ‘70.”
Starting the look back
My first question to Pat Powell. "In the weeks before you left, what was it like? What were you like?"
“I was the oldest, and I just thought if I go in, my brothers won’t have to go in. Well, they followed shortly after. My father was a World War II veteran and my mother was in the Army Nurses Corps. We were taught patriotism and love of country.”
Butch Rease's father also served World War II, "and he never talked to me about the war. But, when I got ready to leave for the Army he said, ‘Son I wish I could go for you, but I can’t.’
"And that really struck a chord with me. I knew my father loved me, but I guess I just didn’t realize it.”
When you got there
Richard Arthur recalls the first day.
"The plane lands, we get off. Everybody runs inside. You can hear the small arms fire. It was a rude awakening when you’re just landing there.”
Adds Frank Kemp: "There were three people standing there in the room where I reported; an old man, a young kid, and a girl. And a guy on guard. He hands me an M16 and says, 'Watch them, I’m going to lunch.’ They could have gotten a way, I would never have figured out how to fire it. But I thought, 'Damn, this is who we’re fighting?'"
Glen Conley spoke Vietnamese
"This little boy and this little girl standing there on the corner, about 7 or 8 years old, were going [counting in Vietnamese]. And…these kids are counting us, I understood. After we dug in near the village and it got dark, our lieutenant has us very quietly move to a nearby ridge. And, about one o’clock in the morning you hear: Thunk…thunk….thunk. And then right on the spot we had moved from: WHAM!...WHAM!...WHAM!”
What about Vietnam after the war?
Pat Powell returned to Vietnam as recently as the '90s, working with a project to create a women's hospital in the name of Sharon Lane in Chu La, where she was killed in a Viet Cong attack on the hopsital where she was treating Vietnamese patients. She says the lingering impact of the American presence is still there.
"The first truck I saw, it was ours; one that had been left behind."
And Butch Rease says making use of U.S. equipment and gear was important to the locals all through the war, too.
“The Vietnamese were handy with keeping things running. They had old trucks and they would come in to where we were working and they had no brakes. And a guy would get out and throw a log under the front wheels to stop the truck.
"They were very handy. We had regular like junkyards, and they made a lot of running stuff out of that.”
Fast forward four decades
Members of the group reflect.
"I’ve been going to the VA for 10 years because I heard that people are getting some answers for their problems," says Glen Conley. "But (it) turns out they have any no pills for guilt. And I did take two lives while I was in Vietnam.”
Frank Kemp reflects: “We go over there and we start these wars, and we’re all gung-ho. (But) we’re not allowed to win. And then we pull out. And it all goes back."
For Richard Arthur, “Now that I’ve had time to see and think about what has happened, I agree with Frank that if politics was left out of the Vietnam War, we would have had a different outcome.”
Adds Conley, “It was like late '80s before someone said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and it caught me so off guard that I cried. I was at a loss. What do you say to that? A thank you? That doesn’t seem adequate. And I finally developed ‘I consider it a privilege.'”