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Ann C. Cunningham: Remembering a notable nurse
Memorial held for decorated Vietnam veteran, University of Virginia staffer

Family, friends and Vietnam War veterans on Saturday celebrated the life of Afton resident Ann C. Cunningham, a decorated U.S. Army nurse and leading veterans advocate who served two tours in Vietnam.

Cunningham, 63, died of a brain hemorrhage Sept. 2 while attending a veterans reunion in Kentucky of the 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division.

Cunningham’s fiancé, Lt. Gary Jones, was assigned during the Vietnam conflict to the 27th Infantry Regiment - also known as the Wolfhounds - when he was killed in combat during the Tet Offensive.

When she received word of his death, Cunningham was on duty as an operating room nurse at the 12th Evac Hospital in Cu Chi, Vietnam.  After losing Jones, Cunningham never married.

“Annie never let it come between her and life, but we know that she suffered,” said Diane Carlson Evans, a longtime friend and fellow Army nurse during Vietnam.

Following Jones’ death, Cunningham became close with the troops in his regiment.  Maj. Gen. Andrew H. Anderson (ret.) said Cunningham exemplified the motto of the 12th Evac Hospital, which was “skilled and resolute.”

“Annie was both in spades,” said Anderson, speaking Saturday at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville at a memorial service attended by about 100 people.

After serving at four hospitals in Vietnam from 1966 to 1970, Cunningham returned to the United States and worked as an operating room nurse in California.

Cunningham moved to Afton in 1997 and took a nursing job in the operating room and ambulatory surgery unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center. She retired from University of Virginia in August 2006.

Starting in 1986, Cunningham was a strong proponent and fundraiser for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, which dedicated its statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1993.  She was the California coordinator for the effort from 1988 to 1997 and had served on its board of directors for the past three years.

While the women’s memorial was being sculpted, the live models wore parts of Cunningham’s Army uniform, including her hat, jacket and boots.  The women’s memorial is one of two statues located next to the Vietnam memorial wall.

She was scheduled next month to participate in the Reading of Names during the Veterans Day ceremony at the memorial’s 25th anniversary.

For her service treating injured soldiers during the war, Cunningham was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star.

“Ann, we thank you for your dedication and for your aid of our wounded and dying soldiers,” said Anderson, who was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade during the war.  “We thank you for your service to our country.”

In addition to her advocacy for women veterans’ issues, Cunningham was active with the Nelson County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“I don’t think there was ever an animal outside her front or back door that Annie didn’t go out and ask ‘Did you eat yet?’” said Steve Ehart, who became friends with Cunningham and her fiancé while serving as a platoon leader in Vietnam.

She was also known for having a fun sense of humor, even in the face of horror.  Carolyn McLeavey, an Army nurse who served with Cunningham, recalled how Cunningham wanted snow during Christmas in Vietnam, so they dumped laundry detergent off a building.

“So we had our snow. We were so happy,” she said. “Then it rained.”

McLeavey also recalled how they called the giant Vietnamese flying cockroaches “nurse eaters.”

“You could always tell a new nurse in country because you’d hear a scream.  Those of us who’d been there a while would use expletives,” she said.  “When you heard someone yell ‘Jeez Louise,’ you’d know that it was Annie.”

Cunningham’s death last month was unexpected.  She will be sorely missed by her friends and fellow veterans, Evans said.

“We’re here to say goodbye, Annie, but we’re looking forward to seeing you again one day,” she said.

As printed in the "The Daily Progress",  Charlottesville, Va.