Donnie Lane – A Beacon For Patriotism

In Brief:

  • Donnie Lane, a Vietnam War veteran and Crestview resident, earned three Purple Hearts as a Huey helicopter pilot with the Fifth Special Forces.
  • To cope with PTSD and the trauma of war, Donnie began creating unique miniature lighthouses, totaling around 15,000 pieces over the years.
  • Despite facing terminal health issues from Agent Orange exposure, Donnie’s legacy of resilience and dedication is reflected in his cherished lighthouses and family pride.

As a Huey helicopter pilot, Crestview area resident Donnie Lane tells me he won three Purple Hearts in Vietnam.

 

He doesn’t like to talk about it, and when he does, he minimizes his heroism in the air above the jungles of the tropical country with the Fifth Special Forces between 1966 and 1968.

 

With a still-winning smile and a North Carolina drawl – he looks at me, pauses, and says, “It was all shrapnel; I was never once shot.”

 

He returned to the States with his wife, Joy. They’d met when her dad started farming tobacco on a farm not far from Donnie’s family farm. They married six months before he shipped off to Southeast Asia.

 

Long before talking about his time in Southeast Asia, he told me about the two things he’s passionate about: His family and lighthouses.

 

Lane takes immense pride in his sons. One, a retired Air Force Colonel and engineer, works on the Beta Alia, an electric battery-powered hybrid between a helicopter and an airplane that could be the future of flight.

 

The aircraft did a series of tests at Duke Field in 2023. It has applications from inserting a unit of infantry into a hostile area, like Donnie did in Vietnam, to delivering packages for UPS and FedEx. For him, watching his son build a potential successor to his Huey after a career in the Air Force wells him with pride – and reminds us of the power of example. After all, statistics show children of servicemen and women are statistically twice as likely to join the military than people whose parents did not serve.

 

The other passion – the lighthouses he built as a way to take his mind off what he experienced more than half a century ago.

 

Agent Orange

Donnie is not in good health. Vietnam was a dangerous place for a dust-off helicopter pilot: the average life expectancy for a helicopter pilot in theatre was between 13 and 30 days, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. Donnie noted that of “his bunch” of pilots who arrived in the country at about the same time, five made it home. Among them was future Chicago Bears lineman Tyrone Jacobson

 

But it wasn’t the violence of battle that claimed so many helicopter pilots in Vietnam or tobacco that would end up ending his life. An American invention – Agent Orange (which US forces used as an herbicide to deny the Vietcong shelter in jungle areas by killing plant life) – has destroyed his lungs and will soon end his life. The Cleveland Clinic says that some 400,000 Vietnamese and 300,000 American Service Personnel have died as a direct result of exposure to the chemical.

 

While the damage from harmful chemicals took about 50 years to threaten Donnie’s life, he had closer alligators to the boat inside his mind. Lane had to deal with the realities anyone must face when returning from war.

 

Becoming a Beacon

At 76, the doctor at the VA clinic handed Donnie a test for PTSD. He’s pretty sure he has it – and already found a healthier way to deal with the reaction to the inhumanity of war.

 

About ten years after returning from Vietnam and setting up a life with Joy in Florida, he bought a lathe and began to carve and shape lighthouses. “I’d go into my workshop and build five or six every night,” he remembers.

 

It kept the worst of the memories out of his mind.

 

Before long, people began to notice his handiwork and begin to buy it. While still building full-sized houses all around the Emerald Coast, Donnie and Joy would go from trade show to trade show and sell the miniature lighthouses he created.

 

At this point, he’s created at least 15,000 of the pieces. He’s used dozens of types of wood – from Deadhead wood dredged from the bottom of rivers to African Rosewood sent across the ocean from a fan of his work, Ebony and Cypress.

 

Each lighthouse is unique. “People will ask me to make a pair, and I tell them it’s impossible,” he says with another side-eyed, knowing smile.  

 

He has about two thousand of them left – each unique, unpainted lighthouse with a small read bead on the top signifies the life of a man who, by his own account, has lived “a wonderful life.”

 

Donnie’s example, like the thousands of lighthouses he lovingly hewed over a half-century, places a beam on a hopeful future for the country he loves and the world he will soon leave of a family man – of a man who made a difference in the world for good and a man who answered our nation’s call.

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