There was an authentic air of celebration among those in attendance for the birthday bash of Jean Fernandez. The surprise and delight on her face when she entered the Diamond View Outpatient Clinic was memorable.
Living to be a hundred years old is an accomplishment in its own right, but Mrs. Jean BoucherFernandez has lived these many years with gusto and a flair for adventure.
She had a good start in life and credits that to coming from a good family. She adds that discipline and hard work developed character in her and her siblings.
“You know, if you didn’t behave, you got the black belt. That’s why we all turned out so good; that’s the secret.” she said.
“We worked back in those days.” She said. “When we were old enough to do something, we did it.”
Upon graduating from St. Michael’s Catholic School, Fernandez enrolled in nursing school. After finishing the program in 1943, she joined the Army as a lieutenant.
At completion of basic training, Fernandez received orders to join the 179th U.S. Army General Hospital at Rouen in Northern France.
The journey proved to be a difficult one. Footlockers belonging to Fernandez and the rest of the women got held up in England. Those lockers held all of their infantry equipment: Helmets, gas masks, sleeping bags, mess kits and cargo belts.
As a result, the women lived for weeks on end wearing the uniform they arrived in: heels, nylons, skirt, blouse and jacket. This was their ensemble from the moment they disembarked by climbing down a rope ladder onto landing craft, and from there they trekked through the sea to the sandy beach.
Upon arrival Fernandez and the other women pitched their tents in a murky cow pasture. She remembers using sticks to pry her heeled shoes out of the mud and waking up in the morning to find that her cot had sunk in the ooze while she slept. Soon her nylons were as black as coal.
Many more delays and hardships ensued before reaching her destination.
The Army General Hospital was a cloistered nuns hospital in its previous life. She recalls working 12 hour shifts there. “We got some young ones, young Americans. They were all freaked out and shell shocked. The colonel put them on the fifth floor. This was during the Battle of the Bulge with the bombs and the planes going full blast. Those kids started jumping out of the windows. I was running around pulling them back in.” She said.
Fernandez had a lot more to say during her birthday party, and she kept the two dozen or so admirers who attended the celebration enraptured with her tales or laughing, in turns.
Her reception is a fitting one: Hugs were bestowed, speeches made and thanks were given as Christina Burr, the writer/editor of My Life My Story shared highlights from Fernandez’s legacy writing.
My Life My Story is a special program at the Reno VA Medical center that helps record military biographies of veterans. In addition to honoring their service and memorializing their experiences, the histories enable clinical staff to better meet the health needs of each veteran.
Public Affairs officer for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, Glenna Smith introduced many prominent guests to Fernandez: Officer Hoover, councilmembers Brian Moore and Mendy Schuster, the Mayor of Susanville, Kevin Stafford and Congressman Doug La Malfa. La Malfa presented Fernandez with a plaque to commemorate the event.
Fernandez was attended by her smiling registered nurse, Deborah Hulsey, while a chaplain hailing from Reno spoke a moving prayer over Fernandez.
Other surprises were in store for Fernandez as well. Birthday wishes had arrived from far and wide including many from St. Lo in Normandy, France, thanking her for her service and congratulating her on becoming a centenarian.
Also, Fernandez is nostalgic about her helmet. She recalls donning it during baths in Normandy and was never quite sure what had become of it. During her birthday party U.S. Department of Affairs Public Officer Glenna Smith revealed she discovered it had been at a relative’s home in Hawaii these many years. Turns out, it was a favorite prop of the children during their youth, and they wore it during childhood games.
Fernandez held court inspiring attendees with her warmth and wit. As is her style, the veteran gave back more than she received.