Thursday, Nov. 01 2012 4:11PM
Summit Theatre produces drama about Vietnam
By Russ Pulley
Performances of an acclaimed play depicting the true stories of six women who served in Vietnam will finish this season for The Summit Theatre Group.
The drama “A Piece of My Heart” is about the rarely told story of women who served in Vietnam, about 10,000 of them in combat zones.
Shirley Lauro adapted the play from oral histories recorded and compiled by Keith Walker and published in the book “A Piece of My Heart.”
“What you will see is true. The people you will meet are real. The events depicted really happened,” said Director Betsy Sexton, in her director’s notes.
The production is taking care to produce an honest portrayal of the events, even getting a technical advisor who had served as a nurse in Vietnam, said Ben Martin, president of the Summit Theatre Group.
She is to give two “talk backs” after the Friday performances, he said. The play is being produced by the group with VFW Post 5789 and Longview Community College. Summit Theatre Group this month is also having its free 2013 announcement party from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Emaline Ballroom, 616 SW Third Street.
The former nurse serving as an advisor would be Kathy Lee, of Oak Grove, who served in a 400-bed emergency hospital housed in Quonset huts on the edge of the South China Sea in 1969.
Martin said she would be giving “talk backs” after the two Friday shows.
Lee became involved the Lee’s Summit production because one of the actresses had been in the play when it was produced by Avila College and remembered how much she’d helped then.
“I seem to be the token Vietnam nurse in this area,” Lee said, laughing. “I always do it on behalf of the women who were left out.”
She said the Lee’s Summit production would be very different from Avila’s, with more combat scenes. Her job as technical advisor was to teach the actors on how to correctly apply bandages, how an IV should look. She coached them on correctly pronouncing names, such as Bien Hoa, which is phonetically “ben waa.” Lee talked to them about the conditions and emotions experienced.
“They try to make it as right as they can, they want to make it perfect for us,” Lee said.
Lee was just 21, her senior year in from nursing school joined the reserves, which helped pay for school, but required two years of active duty. She started in the pediatric ICU caring for babies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in eight months she was transferred to Chu Lai, Vietnam.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Lee said. “Just thrown into the middle of everything, I didn’t know what to do. I went from taking care of tiny babies with tiny injuries to taking care of big guys with injuries bigger than those babies.”
She said the typical image of a Vietnam veteran is a soldier with a backpack, an automatic rifle with the jungle in the background, but 10,000 women served there, 8,000 of them nurses.
When she first arrived, Lee was assigned to a ward helping care for wounded Vietnamese villagers and POWs. She said that was hard because some of them might have been the ones responsible for wounding American soldiers who were in other wards.
As a new nurse at Walter Reed she hadn’t even been asked to take blood or give IV’s to the babies.
Now in Vietnam those responsibilities fell on her immediately.
Treating the villagers was sometimes trying. When one was injured, the whole family would come with them, eight or nine would crowd around the bed. Many times they’d have minor wounds themselves. There was language barrier, mistrust. Not understanding, they’d pull out their IV’s. A military policeman would be stationed at every two or three beds in that ward.
There were three interpreters assigned to the hospital, but they were too busy to be able to help with everyone.
She remembers one helicopter arriving at the hospital with 11 wounded on board, stacked on top of each other, when the aircraft was designed to carry about six.
“Those pilots were crazy, they didn’t think about their own lives, they thought about getting the men out and not leaving anyone behind,” Lee said.
Wounded and the dead came in together, to triage, where it would be decided who needed treatment first, and the bodies for identification.
The surgeons, corpsmen and nurses would patch wounded up and then they’d be sent on to Japan for further recovery, she said.
Although it was a hospital marked with red crosses, it was not always safe. A fellow nurse was killed, one of eight with their name on The Wall in Washington D.C., and that nurse was the first killed from hostile fire in Vietnam.
Her name was Sharon Lane, a 25-year-old nurse from Canton, Ohio who’d been in Vietnam six weeks. She was Lee’s replacement when Lee was transferred from the Vietnamese ward to caring for Americans. Lee was working that day when a rocket attack hit the ward and killed Lane.
“It could have been me,” Lee said. “Everything I do, I do for Sharon.”
She recites the position of Lane’s name on Vietnam War Memorial, it is 26W, Line 112 on The Wall.
“You can talk about it now, but you can see it like it was yesterday,” Lee said.
Sometimes there were good days and laughs. And there were helicopter rides over some beautiful land (although it was against the rules).
Shifts were 12 hours, sometimes longer, depending on how many wounded were coming in.
“There was always something to do, if nothing else to just go around and talk to the guys,” Lee said.
“It was the best and the worst year of my life. I went there immature and naïve, when I came home I felt I could do anything.”