Teaching, Nursing, and Soldiering: Three Noble Professions

Annie Cunningham, R.N., at the 12th Evac Hospital, Cu Chi, Vietnam, 1967

Annie Cunningham, R.N., at the 12th Evac Hospital, Cu Chi, Vietnam, 1967

By Dave Garrod, Past-President, Recipient of the General Frederick C. Weyand Award

A story of love, devotion, and sorrow that starts in our youth on the playgrounds of elementary schools across our country; where third graders play games at recess such as Cowboys, Indians, and Soldiers. These children grow to be adults and they pick their professions. The middle of the story takes place in a war-torn country called Vietnam where two young people in the Nursing and Soldiering professions meet and fall in love.

The end of the story takes place in two locations here in the United States, one at Schofield Barracks in 2006 which was a dedication of our monument “United by Sacrifice” and the other the following year in Lexington, KY at a reunion of 25th Infantry Division Soldiers and Nurses.

The author asks permission to take Artistic License in this story by interjecting himself into it. Since I was intimately involved in all three of these noble professions, I think I’ve earned that right.

Postscript: Many of the readers are familiar with at least two of these professions Soldiering and Nursing and the two later time periods. Not so much familiar with those days of the author’s youth on playgrounds of his elementary school. Thus I have changed some of the names of those in the first part of the story to protect the innocent. The names of those in the later parts of the story are very familiar to many of the readers, especially those who served with the 2nd of the 27th Infantry Regiment, “Wolfhounds” and the 12th Evac Hospital. Therefore real names are used. Please do not be offended if this story is told in a way you do not recall it happening. It is based on events that did happen and our perspective of these events may be somewhat different. Battlefields are usually large areas of operation and each individual has a smaller area of viewing these events. This story is based on true facts and I remind the reader that it is not about me.

Chapter 1  Our Youth
In elementary school, it was common to play games at recess, like cowboys and Indians. After choosing sides, there were always a few kids who didn’t get picked to be a cowboy or Indian. So the obvious solution was to have nurses to care for the injured cowboys and Indians. Inevitably the girls were picked to be the nurses and the boys took on most of the combatant characters. There were a few exceptions to this practice when a “Tom Boy” or two were chosen to be combatants.

It didn’t take too long for a situation to arise when a boy was chasing a girl or vice versa. It was only natural for a little bit of infatuation (puppy love) to enter into the mix; especially when Alice was on one side and your author on the opposite side. You see, Alice and I had a thing for each other. Call it puppy love or childhood sweethearts; it was part of the game. How does the poem go; “Georgie Porgee chased the girls, Georgie Porgee kissed the girls and made them cry!” I was always a fast runner and did just that when I was chasing Alice. However, when Alice was chasing me, I ran slower. Sometime during these recesses of long ago, one of us got caught by the other and we kissed. The moral to this part of the story is very simple; we found ways to play together, even as kids and no matter what race or gender. Catching a girl or being caught by a girl was pretty nice!
When a combatant was shot (bang, bang, your wounded), the nurses went into action. Some real life saving efforts took place in order to get the cowboy or Indian back in the game. There even may have been a kiss or two that saved a life and turned the tide of battle.

Our 3rd grade teacher Miss Anderson would always be close by watching us as if we were fragile little peeps that needed looked after by mama hen. Miss Anderson was almost every boy’s favorite teacher. She was always so sweet and she was also very attractive on the inside and out. None of the boys misbehaved in her class. The girls in our class (including Alice) were her pets, and they knew it. Not that they got in trouble, just they did everything they could to please Miss Anderson. Good memories from Fairfield Elementary School in 1950–1951 academic years.

Chapter 2  Teaching, Nursing, and Soldiering
Boys and girls grow up and become adults with dreams and wishes that lead them into different careers. Some enter the job market right after graduation from high school and some get extra training or schooling to enter a profession like nursing and/or teaching. Others for whatever reason (following in another family members footsteps or fulfilling a legacy), chose to enter a military school for a higher education or enter a branch of service to learn the skills of a combatant. These male and female combatants became very good at their trade and progressed through the ranks till they were teaching others this trade.

In time of war such as the one our country had in Vietnam, this ritual took on a much faster pace to prepare the young adults to work together as a unit. Many young adults end up in the military because of the old method of raising an Army, the draft or inscription. Training and teaching becomes a much more intense and serious task. Some of the military’s best instructors taught some pretty rough and tough kids from small town America and the big city ghettos to operate as a tight unit with only hand and eye signals. Working together as a crack unit that would be able to watch their buddies back and also know they too were being looked over by a buddy.

In the nursing profession as it related to military service, both men and women became medics and nurses. Most all of the women nurses were volunteers, for a minimum of two years commitment to the military, and advancement came pretty fast for those who had a nursing degree when they enlisted. The concept of team work for these women worked very well and gave our Soldiers wonderful care without exception.

Into this collection of men and women came a young woman by the name of Annie Cunningham from Southern California. Annie was a very motivated person and knew what she wanted in life: the nursing profession. A road block became evident when she looked into tuition at the better nursing schools. However, enlistment in the US Army was her saving grace. She could not only get her degree in nursing at little to no cost, she would be a commissioned office upon graduation and basic training.

Annie flourished and passed her nursing boards the first time. Next would be the military commitment to pay back those tuition dollars and more training in the types of medical care not seen in private and state schools; triage, new techniques in surgery, and therapies. Also caring for wounds that are traumatic for the patient and the nurse, such as loss of limbs, how to deal with death, and suffering beyond anything a civilian would have witnessed.

Annie did well at Fort Sam Houston and found herself in charge of other younger and newer nurses and medics she was assigned to teach. When the training was over, it came time for assignments. You would think these delicate and beautiful angles of mercy would fear being assigned to a war zone. However, Annie and her friends wanted the adventure of going to a foreign country in the Far East to practice what they learned. And practice they did!

Chapter 3  Soldering in the Infantry
A young man from East Point, Georgia needed help with his tuition at Georgia State College and took a similar route to get his education and commission. Gary Jones joined the ROTC at his school and like others in his extended family that was in the military, decided to serve his country. If he was going into the military, it had to be infantry; it would be U.S. Army and infantry branch.

Gary was assigned to the infamous Wolfhounds of the 25th ID in Vietnam. He quickly rose in the ranks because of his temperament under fire, and being in the wrong or right (depending on your perspective with a loss of a superior office or being next in line as a 1st LT) place at the time. Gary met Annie either at a social function while off duty or while visiting his wounded platoon members. They seemed to have an attraction to each other and a romance took hold. To the extent they could, they made plans to marry as soon as was possible in this war time confabulation. How can a couple court in this type of situation? It was Christmas season and many units had stand down status while the Christmas cease fire took place. There was also the Bob Hope Show the Soldiers, Wounded Warriors and some nurses could attend.

Even in the conditions Gary and Annie faced during this two or three week period, they managed to see each other enough to know they were meant for each other. Workloads were lighter for the nurses and the Soldiers had stand down training exercises and equipment maintenance. Because of their Catholic Faith, they choose to go through RCI (Rite of Christian Initiation for adults) with the priest while waiting to deploy back to the world. The lessons of what it means to be a catholic married couple had to be put on hold when the Tet Offensive interrupted everyone’s plans in Vietnam.

Gary’s short and dangerous career as an officer with the “Wolfhounds” started as a 2nd LT in March of 1967 for six months of line duty. His next promotion was to 1st LT and XO of Delta Co. When his CO was incapacitated, Gary took over as acting CO of Delta. By this time Tet ’68 was upon us and Gary’s training was put to the ultimate test: a regiment of VC and NVA regulars just to the west of Tan Son Nhut air base in the Vintexico Textile Mill were gathering guns and ammo that had been snuck into Saigon in funeral coffins and buried in cemeteries that were marked for the VC to find later.

The 25th ID was busy fighting with elements of this regiment even before Tet started. Twenty seven Aero Rifles of D Troop 3/4 Cav were inserted into the Ho Bo Woods on the night of 30 Jan 1968. They set up an ambush in a bomb crater near the Saigon River. Sure enough, contact was made and the fight was on. Air and Artillery support was called in and the Aero Rifles fought for their lives. It was obvious they were outnumbered as more and more of them were wounded or killed. About this time a C&C (Command & Control) helicopter from D Troop sent an illumination round long and over the South side of the river so the pilots of the gunships could see friendly forces and enemy. A FO (Forward Observer) in one of the air assets saw a column of NVA moving south towards Saigon and called in Artillery and gunships that sprayed the area. Body count could not be determined. It was later found that this formation of NVA was on its way to bomb the Hoc Mon Bridge in order to prevent quick response teams form 25th Base Camp to intervene with the NVA’s planned attack on Tan Son Nhut. (Author’s note: Remember the size of the battlefield caution mentioned earlier in the post script? The size of this one stretched back to Hanoi in North Vietnam giving many different perspectives to the participants).

Meantime, the squad of Aero Rifles was down to just a few able bodied men. They had 5 KIA’s and most of the survivors were WIA (including the Platoon leader Bill Mosenthal). They needed evacuation ASAP. The 2/27 came to the rescue that night and had 1 KIA and several WIA conducting the link up. The extraction was successful and the squad of Aero Rifles made it to 12th Evac Hospital. The air assets of D Troop were kept warm and the weapons expended most of their ammo that early morning and started about 02:30 replenishing ammo and repairing damaged Helios. The 31st was coming with the VC/NVA surprise. See “War Stories” on the following link for details of this battle including video and essays by survivors.

The wounded were triaged with quick action by the team of medics and nurses. More than likely Annie was on duty, doing what she did best, shoulder to shoulder with the surgeons. Lives were saved that early morning because of the noble and skilled team of Doctors, Nurses, Orderlies, and Medics. The KIA’s were solemnly prepared for the trip home to loved ones. Yes, there were even nurses and orderlies that took care of this very private and serious task. Little did the members of 12th Evac Hospital know what was in store for them the next day and months? The surprise attack by the VC and NVA called Tet ‘68 was to launch within hours, which would change the outcome of this war in Vietnam. Author’s recollections of this battle to save Saigon will appear in a later issue of “Flashes”.

1st LT Gary Jones 1943–1968

1st LT Gary Jones 1943–1968

Gary was back in the saddle fighting Charlie. On 9 Feb 1968, while on a mission to engage an estimated battalion sized Viet Cong/NVA unit, Gary was killed in action. This mission was in conjunction with the ¾ Cavalry near Hoc Mon, Ap Dong and Lan Thong villages. The battle went on for 6-7 days resulting in an overwhelming victory by the combined forces of the Wolfhounds, 3/4 Cav, and B52 Bombers from the US Air Force. It was also a watershed battle for both units. The Cav was awarded the PUC (Presidential Unit Citation for actions during and after Tet ’68), Gary was awarded the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty at the cost of his life while assaulting a bunker believed to be protecting a battalion sized VC/NVA unit. May Gary rest in peace.

Bereaved beyond measure Annie escorted Gary’s body home. She returned to Vietnam to finish her tour. She was next assigned to Ft. Lee, Virginia and visited Gary’s family often. She became the daughter-in-law Gary’s parents never had. When the Army Nurse Corps told her later she was being assigned to Korea, Annie said, “Send me back to Vietnam”. She finished a second tour there. Annie never married. She never found another Lt. Gary Jones.

Chapter 4  The Final Banquet
Annie Cunningham returned State side after her tour was completed and stayed in the nursing profession. She remained single and after a year of mourning, she went back to Vietnam on her second tour in Quang Tri and Camp Evans doing her specialty of assisting Surgeons and training younger nurses. After her tour in 1970 came to an end, she settled in Afton, Va. She was quickly hired by UVA Medical Center and began the next phase of her life working in the civilian hospitals with even better trained doctors and nurses (some who were also Veterans of Vietnam and the intense schedules they volunteered to take on). Work consumed her time, but she still found time to take on a project with her friend and fellow Vietnam Veteran Nurse, Diane Evans. Diane was in the beginning of a project to fund raise, seek permission, and erect a fitting tribute to the nurses who cared for our Soldiers while putting their lives on the line. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project was incorporated in 1984, and is a non-profit organization located in Washington, DC. The mission of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation (formerly the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project) is to promote the healing of Vietnam women veterans through the placement of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; to identify the military and civilian women who served during the Vietnam war; to educate the public about their role; and to facilitate research on the physiological, psychological, and sociological issues correlated to their service. The Foundation has the support of every major veterans group in the country including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and more than 40 other diverse organizations.

Annie did what she could to contribute to the mission of the Women’s Memorial Project by spreading the word and getting donations. Annie also started finding other Vets who were visiting the Vietnam Veteran’s Monument (The Wall) and attending the big ball called “The Delta to the DMZ Dance” in DC every Veteran’s Day. It was at one of these dances that she found some “Wolfhounds” who had served in Vietnam. She easily made friends with these men, they told other Wolfhounds about her and Gary and a friendship was kindled strongly aided by the computer age. Click to enjoy the song.

In 2004 when the 25th IDA was asked to help with a monument to honor the KIA’s from the “new war” (called OIF, Operation Iraqi Freedom and OEF, Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan) by the 25th ID CO, GEN Eric Olson, a few of us Vietnam Veteran’s stepped up and started fund raising. LT COL Tom Jones agreed to be my co-pilot in this adventure called 25th IDA Memorial Fund. Click to visit 25th ID Memorial Fund.

It wasn’t long before the dollars came in and ground was broken. The resulting dedication during the 25th IDA Reunion was attended by over 600 Veteran’s, their wives, many troops just back from deployment, and a large contingent from Hawaii. Annie was asked to be the Vietnam Veteran who would unveil the Vietnam Soldier Statue for all to see for the first time, a true honor!

The following year (2007) Annie attended our reunion in Lexington, Kentucky. She met and broke bread with even more Wolfhounds. She had truly found a home with our Association and her Wolfhound Pack. Having gone back almost 40 years in memories, Annie had come full circle. She met her intended husband’s old unit 2/27 (some who were more than likely treated by Annie and her fellow nurses) and probably felt like she was as close to home as she could be.

Things unfortunately don’t always work out like Hollywood scripts and proof of that was our banquet at the Lexington Reunion on the final night. Just before the banquet, Annie had gone back to her room to rest from the activities of the day. As the attendees were assembling in the anti-room of the banquet hall, someone heard sirens. Having forgot my tickets for the meal, I returned to my room to retrieve them. As the elevator took me back down to the first floor, the door opened on a lower floor and the EMT’s brought on a gurney with Annie on it. As she was being hurried out to the ambulance through the lobby, a feeling of dread started to envelope the waiting reunion attendees. One would whisper to another, Was that Annie”? “God bless her and protect her!”

Our group of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and now OIF & OEF Veterans unfortunately were accustomed to this type of event. The older Vets were aging and each reunion year at our memorial service their names were being called as the members who had passed in the last year. Some had gotten sick at the reunion and later passed from their illness. Benny Littlefield was a prime example on our reunion to Fairbanks, Alaska. Benny got sick at Denali and was evacuated back to his home in Philly where he passed away eighteen months later. Benny was a charter member of the Association and its first treasure.

Death has a way of creeping into our lives and disrupting it in ways we never imagined. This was the case in Annie’s untimely death. It did not make sense; after devoting her life to her profession and keeping her love for her intended husband Gary in the forefront, she had found Gary’s buddies, only to be taken away herself. Her final banquet with friends, cut short. She died at a convention with her fellow Wolfhounds.

Maybe it did make sense after all; Annie did meet Gary’s friends and was now ready to meet him with a final “Sit Rep”. “Your friends are well, they remember you as if it were yesterday when your Delta Company was fighting the NVA at Hoc Mon, and they will never forget us.”

Annie and Gary are together again and have consecrated their marriage. They may not have children to carry on their legacy; however there are many girls and boys running around on playgrounds around our great country, chasing each other and being caught in order to be rewarded with a kiss. Annie and Gary may you both rest in peace together in each other’s arms. Thank you for your service to our country: “Tropic Lightning Sirs”.

Thanks to the following who gave the author great advice and information that allowed this article to be accurate and coherent. Especially Diane Carlson Evans who eloquently put into words the last paragraph in Chapter 3, page 6; and also, Diane shared Annie’s words in a resume she submitted for an introduction to a group. Thanks also to Thomas Fleming for the names, and other pertinent information about the Aero Rifle’s battle on 30 Jan 1968. “Easy” Smith for his always helpful offers and his love of everything “Wolfhound”, thank you very much. Steve Ehart, another devoted Wolfhound”, for his help in content and flow to the story, I am truly thankful. I would be amiss if I didn’t also include a thank you to the leaders and Soldiers (including both men and women) of the 25th ID. They are who this publication is all about. Thanks also for your service to our great country.

The KIA’s from the first ten days of Tet ’68 were as follows (please note, I have tried to be as accurate as possible on these names and have only included the names of those from the units and events mentioned in this article):

B & C Troopers:
Roger B Crowell, Panel 36E, Row 4
Richard J Rhodes, Panel 36E, Row 32
Robert M Finnegan, Panel 36E, Row 7
Harold R Stafford, Panel 36E, Row 37
Gerald L Fitts, Panel 36E, Row 7
Patrick J Strayer, Panel 36E, Row 39
Troy A Littlejohn, Panel 36E, Row 22
Anthony F Vanhulleh, Panel 36E, Row 40
Murray L Veron, Panel,36E, Row 40
Vernon C. Wilderspin, Panel 36E, Row 42
Robert E Johnston Jr, Panel 36E, Row 52
James Lampley, Panel 36E, Row 69

D Troopers:
Todd R Jackson, Panel 35E, Row 73
Ralph E Mabry, Panel 35E, Row 75
Morrison L Pickett, Panel 35E, Row 79
Tuioalele T Suiaunoa, Panel 35E, Row 83
Robert A Warner, Panel 35E, Row 83

Benny J Smith, Panel 36E, Row 36
Wayne D Boyer, Panel 37E, Row 49
Terry J Williams, Panel 36E, Row 42
Paul R Paduchowski, Panel 37E, Row 65
Richard L Cullen, Panel 36E, Row 68
Charles E Phillips, Panel 37E, Row 66
Rene Z Hernandez, Panel 36E, Row 74
Randy H Brock, Panel 37E, Row 78
Gary R Fitch, Panel 36E, Row 70
Walter R McDonald, Panel 38E, Row 56
Mark J Allstott, Panel 37E, Row 17
Bonnie L Coleman, Panel 38E, Row 47
Russell D Chase, Panel 37E, Row 19
Jack C Plahn, Panel 38E, Row 59
Jack A Beard, Panel 37E, Row 31