Monday, October 28, 2013

October: Our Month For Honoring American Women in Vietnam: Part V

American Red Cross Patch

Although they went by many names (some not appreciated, some hangovers from World War II and Korea and some used derisively by soldiers) the women of The American Red Cross (SRAO) Supplemental Recreational Activities Organization volunteered to serve their brother-soldiers and contribute in their own way to the effort in a war that no one of their generation really understood. Some have settled on the nickname "Donut Dollies" and found comfort in that association.

In the most notable group of civilian women who served in Vietnam there were three outfits:
the American Red Cross (ARC), the United Services Organization (USO), and the Army Special Services.

Most of the early groups of women who went to Vietnam set out to be a part of something they believed to be important-standing behind their nation. In the early days, the volunteers were girls who had been born as the "point" of the Baby Boom- right after WW II and were raised on John Wayne, General George Patton, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima and all the fantastic red-white and blue of their country- America. Volunteering to do their bit made sense and was, they believed, in the tradition of those women who volunteered by the thousands during World War II both at home and abroad. They would quickly learn how much the world had changed in those 20 years.

Originally established in 1882 by Clara Barton, the Red Cross provides, to this day, service to civilians and military during times of war or other crises such as natural disasters. 
"The ARC was sent to Vietnam by Congress in 1962 to assist the increasing number of American military in the country. General William Westmoreland, the military commander at the time, requested the service of the ARC workers. He considered them of great importance to the  morale of the men. Of the twelve-hundred women who worked for the ARC in Vietnam throughout the war, 627 were part of the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) Program, or better known as the Donut Dollies. In addition to the Donut Dollies, there were also women in the ARC who worked in Service to Military Hospitals and Service to Military Installations. In the peak year, 1968, there were 480 ARC staff who assisted an average of 25,550 men each month in the clubs, and 2,300 cases each month in the hospitals."-a
The women who were a part of the ARC (SRAO) volunteered. Most of them were just out of college in their early 20s. All of them had college degrees. None of them had experience in war, and were not provided with any training to protect themselves in the case of an attack. Because there was no front line, per se, in the war in Vietnam, danger was everywhere. More often than not, their billets were situated in camps and compounds vulnerable to attacks. Many stories have been related where the Red Cross housing might be located near a helicopter pad or some other important area- the idea being that the enemy would never attack a structure with red crosses painted on the roof and walls. But they would. The enemy would wait for nightfall and run around madly tossing sappers (percussion bombs) into the open windows of Red Cross quarters knowing full well that any GIs nearby would run to help the women- and then the infiltrators would blow up the helicopters. This was an incident that occurred in An Khe sometime between the summer of 1969 and summer of 1970 as told to us by a volunteer stationed there who dove under her bed when she heard the explosions. The enemy was not there to kill Donut Dollies, he was there to blow up helicopters.

"Donut Dollie" engaging soldiers in the field in a game
intended to take their minds from the war-if
just for a few moments.
Joann Puffer Kotcher's Memoir

More often than not, soldiers in the field especially, would ignore or ridicule the efforts of these women who had risked life and limb- without protective gear like helmets and flak jackets, riding in helicopters, jeeps and troop trucks to reach their destinations. 
One can imagine that trying to balance the silly games and Kool-Aid and snacks with death and destruction was not a simple task- for the soldiers OR the Red Cross volunteers. Their charge, at all times, was to BE CHEERFUL no matter what.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

The young American women who volunteered, whether with a civilian organization, such as the Red Cross or as Army Special Services and USO personnel connected with their brother-soldiers because they were roughly the same age. They might share a cup of coffee in the morning, swap a few laughs and then- whoosh off the boys would go on their helicopters out into the field. Sadly, many would not return. If they survived but were wounded, more often than not,  medevac choppers would carry them off to a hospital in another area or to a US Navy hospital ship offshore. Some times they would come back- but most of the time they would not. These volunteers would never see those guys again. Their buddies often did not see or hear from them again either.

In some instances, Red Cross girls would go to hospitals and MASH units to visit fellows who had been wounded, guys they had shared some stories of home with, guys who'd shown photos of their girlfriends back home only to find the young soldier had lost both of his legs. Or had his face half blown off. Any of a million different kinds of injuries. They could not cry. They could not show emotion. They could not tell the soldier how bad they felt. They had to keep smiling no matter what.
Even a warm cup of Kool-Aid tasted
pretty good!

Most of the Donut Dollies were about the same age as the soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors serving in Vietnam. By 1969, the age of 60% of military in country was 19.  It was up to these young women to keep a game face on. Imagine the pressure to withhold emotions in the midst of a war. A war that was raging all around them. Many of the women returned stateside and never received any therapy.  Just as their brother-soldiers, they pretty much faded back into "the world" as if nothing had ever happened. "After all, it was only a year- how bad could it have been?", their unknowing friends would wonder.

Sometimes a cup of coffee from a "round eye" was
the best thing a soldier could think of.

"Yes and how many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?"
-Bob Dylan "Blowin' in the Wind

The question was asked "How many (SRAO Red Cross) volunteers died?" The answer is four we will list their names here with deepest sadness and in honor of their contributions and ultimate sacrifices- regardless. May they rest in eternal peace.

Hannah E. Crews, Jeep accident, Bien Hoa October 2, 1969
Lucinda Richter, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Cam Ranh Bay February 9, 1971
Virginia E. (Ginny) Kirsch, murdered by an American soldier, Cu Chi August 16, 1970
Sharon Wesley, April 4, 1975, "Operation Babylift" crash, after her tour with ARC

The American Red Cross Memorial
Washington, DC
November 11, 2013
" In Honor and Memory of the
Men and Women of the American Red Cross
Who Gave Their Lives In Service
to Mankind

In Memoriam
May You Rest In Peace
Thank You

Thank You Women of the American Red Cross (SRAO) Vietnam
(Donut Dollies)

Welcome Home!

1. Attributions: a Weber, Maryann L., "Forgotten Sacrifices: American Civilian Women in the Vietnam War"   (1996) Master's Theses, Paper 1272. San Jose State University.
2. Photos: Have been gleaned from various sites on the internet. Most do not have credits or attributions, kindly contact us if you recognize any of these photos and/if they are yours, we can remove them or, at your request add the credit.  We understand how personal they are. VMWT
3. Comments are welcomed and encouraged. You may comment anonymously if you wish. Comments are monitored and will not be published publicly until reviewed by our administrators. Think twice, post once!


  1. Replies
    1. Three volunteers with the American Red Cross (SRAO) died in Vietnam.

  2. Four DDs died incountry. Sharon Wesley was a DD when she found out about the Amerasian children known as 'Bui Doi'... 'Dust of the Streets' She stayed on with Army Special Services and then worked directly with the Baby Lift program. She died with so many others in the crash of the Baby Lift flight. The other three died in different ways. One was murdered by a paranoid schizophrenic... one died in a jeep accident... one died of Guillain Barre disease before they were able to figure out what it was. Only one of us was shot... she was cared for by the military and survived.
    ARC DD 7/67 - 8/68

  3. It's bothered me for years that the gals never got the recognition they so so deserved. I am a combat vet from VN and they saw much more blood and guts than us grunts did !! Thank you so much !! Their smiles and help were much needed and appreciated !!

    Tom |