Last week, a troupe of New York actors gave an emotional, cathartic performance in the play, “A Piece of My Heart.” Those who saw it will likely never forget it — the story of Army nurses during the Vietnam War in 1968-69. The play is by Shirley Lauro.
It is a component of ongoing work by Diane Carlson Evans of Helena, Mont., the founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. She was a captain, an RN and worked in a field hospital and a burn unit in Pleiku, South Vietnam. Ms. Evans attended all six performances in Buffalo, Gillette and Sheridan, including a performance Wednesday last at the WYO Theater.
Each performance included a “talkback” session at the show’s conclusion. This particular night, a member of the audience rose and said aloud with some 350 looking on: “I’ve waited 45 years to say thank you.”
That former soldier was Dan Burnett of Story.
“They held my admiration for all these years because of the stress they were under and what they meant to patching up soldiers, talking with us, reassuring us, and sending us home,” Burnett said Monday afternoon from his home, the Wagon Box Ranch. “They are all beautiful people.”
Burnett grew up in Story/Banner, was drafted into the Army out of Billings and recalls fondly the “care packages” that came regularly from the Banner Store and Post Office, then-owned by Milt and May Johnson. He would split the contents with members of his squad.
Burnett was a member of the First Cavalry Airborne (Air Mobile) Division during the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the war. Twice he found himself as a patient in the 45th Surgical Unit near Tay Ninh, South Vietnam, suffering from wounds and then malaria. After he recovered, he was assigned to Maj. Gen. E.B. Roberts’ staff to provide morale and support to the soldiers and nurses serving in these forward area medical facilities. Burnett was recruited as a “direct connect” to the soldiers and nurses in the field. “This assignment got me into seeing firsthand what these nurses did for us.”
“It was a bad deal,” he says of his time there, in 1968-1969. “These nurses had the hardest challenge — to accomplish their missions of patching us up and then having to deal with all of the mental stress as we had as soldiers. There were never enough doctors. The nurses had to be doctors and make tough decisions and all of that weighed on them,” he adds. Burnett says that at that time, some 200 to 250 U.S. soldiers a day were being treated at these mobile ICU units, then sent to Japan, then forwarded onto further medical care and rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Maryland.
Burnett retired in 2012 after a long career with the Sheridan County Road and Bridge Department. His wife, Lynn Burnett, sat next to him last Wednesday as he rose and said thanks.
“A lot of people I think were taken aback,” he says. “I wanted to address them and note my appreciation and admiration.” Burnett hasn’t been to Washington, D.C., or to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) or the monument that Capt. Evans championed which was dedicated in 1993. “It’s one my goals to get there,” he adds.
“No one really understands what they (the nurses) did and what they had to go through unless you were there,” Burnett says, adding, that the nurses at the VA hospital in Sheridan are “as outstanding as the nurses were back then.”
One more story.
‘Piece’ was also performed at the Sheridan VA hospital before 125 veterans and 35 staff members a week ago Tuesday. At the play’s conclusion and after an indeterminable silence during the “talkback” session, Ms. Evans called out, “I need a hug.” Some 30-35 veterans came forward and therein commenced a mutual embrace. One veteran slipped away from the hold and sat at the piano nearby. He played “Amazing Grace.”