Donut Dollies: Women in Vietnam

Sharon VanderVen


Home
Frequently Asked Questions
Photo Galleries
Letters and Articles

Other Resources:
Women in Vietnam
Help for Students
A Documentary

© Copyright 2004-2010, by Sharon D. Cummings. All Rights Reserved.

May be freely used and copied for educational and other non-commercial purposes.

Designed by Cat Ellen webmaster@crescentwing.com

Sharon (Vander Ven) Cummings

ARC SRAO (Donut Dollie)

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How did you get your job?
  2. Why did you volunteer for Vietnam?
  3. What kind of training did you receive?
  4. What did you do in Vietnam?
  5. How would you describe your job?
  6. How did you feel about going to Vietnam?
  7. Where were you stationed?
  8. How did you feel as your tour progressed?
  9. How did you feel when you returned to the United States?
  10. What did you do to get through a day in Vietnam?
  11. What was a routine day like?
  12. Describe a Red Cross Recreation Center.
  13. What was it like to visit the hospitals?
  14. Where did you live and eat while in Vietnam?
  15. What were the bathroom facilities like?
  16. How did you dress in Vietnam?
  17. Did you have any kind of nightlife?
  18. What was Christmas like?
  19. Describe your friendships (male and female).
  20. What is your fondest memory of the women who were over there?
  21. Did you ever encounter sexual harassment?
  22. What was it like to go through "friendly fire?"
  23. What would you like people to remember and understand most about the women who served?
  24. Is there a part of you still there?
  25. How different are you from the time you began your tour of duty to the time you came home?
  26. What (if anything) do you miss most?
  27. What was it like to be a woman in Vietnam?
  28. How were you treated when you came home?
  29. What is it like being a female veteran of Vietnam?
  30. What do you think of the play, "A Piece of My Heart"?
  31. Did going to war have a greater personal impact on men or women? It seems the men have suffered more.
  32. How can I find out more about your experience, or see more of your photos?

  1. How did you get your job?
  2. Most of us were recruited from college campuses. Requirements were for young women, minimum age of 21, single, with a college degree. In my case, my Mom worked for the Red Cross and told me about the jobs opening up in Vietnam (this was 1966). I flew to San Francisco and interviewed for the job – and was offered the job on the spot. Within 6 weeks, I had gotten my shots and was in Washington DC for two weeks of training. From there, I was on a plane full of GIs with 6 other girls (we always called ourselves "girls") and were flying to Vietnam. Our tour of duty was for a full year.

    Here are a couple of books that have some of our stories:

    • "A Piece of My Heart" by Keith Walker
    • "A Time Remembered - American Women in the Vietnam War" by Olga Gruhzit-Hoyt
    • "Vision of War, Dreams of Peace - Writings of Women in the Vietnam War" edited by Linda Van Devanter & Joan A. Furey

    back to the top

  3. Why did you volunteer for Vietnam?
  4. I had graduated from college, was not getting married, and I needed a job. I interviewed with the ARC in San Francisco, and after the interview, they asked me where I would rather go, Korea or Vietnam. I chose Vietnam - it was 1966 and I figured not many people would volunteer to go there. And I had no idea what I was really volunteering for. And knowing all I know now, if you'd ask me today, I'd go again.

    When I went to VN, I was the youngest girl in-country. I had my newly earned college degree (in sociology), was single, and needed a job -- so I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I look back and cannot believe how innocent and naive I was. I had been raised as an AF brat and lived in Germany, the Philippines, and even graduated from high school in Goose Bay, Labrador, but had really lead a very sheltered life. It was quite an experience!

    back to the top

  5. What kind of training did you receive?
  6. We only received two weeks training in Washington DC before going to Nam – (it was mostly on the job training). And there was NON training in terms of protection against enemy fire. We were noncombatants and were "safe." Our training consisted of learning how to recognize the various branches of the military and their ranks, and how to behave like a lady in all situations. We received the rest of our shots at the Pentagon and we were issued our dog tags and uniforms, which we had to hem before packing. As a training exercise, we divided into teams and "created" a clubmobile program and presented it to the entire group. And we were on our way!

    back to the top

  7. What did you do in Vietnam?
  8. I served as a Recreation worker with the American Red Cross (also known by some as "Donut Dollies"). Our job was to set up recreation centers before the USO and Special Services came in, and to write and conduct recreation programs out in the field for those guys who could not come in to our centers. In addition to "working" with the "well" guys, we also visited the hospitals and handed out activity books with puzzles, riddles, cartoons, jokes, etc., that we had written and put together - or we just went into the wards and spent some time with the wounded soldiers. Our job was to smile and be bubbly for an entire year . . . no matter what the situation.

    back to the top

  9. How would you describe your job?
  10. Many times, I have been asked, What did you do in Vietnam? Were you a nurse? I don't think I would have had the strength to be a nurse in Vietnam, and I use to feel guilty telling people that I was there to play games with the guys. I never realized that what I did was important until I went back to Washington DC in November 1993 for the dedication of the Women's Memorial at the Wall. And despite what many people have said, I feel the statue is a tribute to ALL women who served in Vietnam - - There has to come a time when we all pull together, especially when we were so busy and leading such different and separate lives when we were in Vietnam. Maybe it is also wisdom with age.

    What I want to share with you is the poem that was written on the backs of the powder blue t-shirts that we Red Cross girls wore in the parade that day. The poem was written by another Donut Dollie and it really gives a beautiful description of what we did:

    A touch of home
    in a combat zone
    A smiling face
    at a bleak firebase
    The illusion of calm
    in VIETNAM

    back to the top

  11. How did you feel about going to Vietnam?
  12. I was really excited! It was a whole new adventure. It was my first job after getting out of college! I had been raised in the military (my Dad was a pilot in the USAF), so I was never concerned for my safety. I just KNEW that the government would not send civilians into harm's way. Remember, this was April 1966, so there had not been a whole lot in the media about the war. In fact, I was not quite sure exactly where Vietnam was. But I was excited and anxious to go!

    back to the top

  13. Where were you stationed?
  14. The first six months were at Cam Ranh Bay, Army. Then with Long Binh II Field Forces (but we lived in Bien Hoa), and finally with the 25th Division in Cu Chi.

    back to the top

  15. How did you feel as your tour progressed?
  16. This is a tough question. As the year progressed, my enthusiasm waned. My first 6 months were spent at Cam Ranh Army, which was a support area. Many of the guys there had come over to "fight the war," and instead were unloading ships and doing other supply details. Morale was very low in this area. The ARC had a recreation center here, which we staffed 7 days a week from early morning to late evening. In addition, we wrote clubmobile programs, which we took over to the Navy side and to some of the outlying areas where the guys could not get in to the center. We also visited the hospital and convalescence center at Cam Ranh Air Force. But mostly, our work was at the center, always thinking of new things we could offer (pool tournaments, Monte Carlo nights, luaus, talent nights, carnivals, etc) to keep the guys interested and to give them an alternative to drinking at their clubs or whatever else they could find to do. Remember, a lot of these guys were only 19 years old. They needed some "clean and safe" diversions from what was available.

    Next I went to Long Binh where, although we had a center, we focused more on the Clubmobile programs. We traveled a great deal -- the guys were more appreciative of our being there - the work was very rewarding. But again, the job was exhausting and when I was transferred to Cu Chi for my final couple of months, even though I wanted to be at a combat unit (no center - just clubmobile), I was tired. Plus here is where I really saw the wages of war ... the looks in the guys' eyes when they would come in from the field. It got harder and harder to greet all the new guys - many of whom I knew would not make it back to the States alive. I would still be brave and smile every day, and when they would ask in amazement, "Why are you here?" I would just beam that smile and say, "Because you are here!" But inside, it hurt to know that I might be the last American girl he would ever talk to.

    back to the top

  17. How did you feel when you returned to the United States?
  18. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I really didn't know how to act. I would walk down a street and smile at everyone, because that was what was expected in Nam. Someone pointed out to me that I shouldn't be smiling at everyone -- it wasn't right and people might get the wrong impression. I got very angry one day when I was in the grocery store -- there was this huge long aisle of cereal boxes. It seemed like hundreds of different types of cereal. And it was more important to choose the correct brand of cereal than to think and worry about our guys who were being blown to bits on the news every night. Nobody seemed to get it that these guys were really dying and that was real blood. I got so very, very angry - - and this was on 1967. I felt lost. I didn't know what to do next. Get another job? Nothing could compare to the excitement and fulfillment I had while working with MY guys in Vietnam. The let down was very, very hard.

    back to the top

  19. What did you do to get through a day in Vietnam?
  20. It seems to me that we probably worked 6 days a week. The hours were long. Sometimes the day was spent running the recreation center. Other times I'd be in the office writing and constructing props for the next clubmobile program. Then there would be the days where we'd be in groups of two and traveling (either by helicopter or jeep) to the various units to conduct our programs. Those days where I'd be "off" were spent resting, maybe going into the village to go shopping or see the sites; at Cam Ranh we'd go to the beach.

    back to the top

  21. What was a routine day like?
  22. First, it depended on where I was stationed and whether or not our unit had a recreation center or was strictly a clubmobile unit. For me, as a DD, my time was spent focusing on the guys -- either playing pinochle, ping pong, or pool at the center; or writing & creating the next mobile program (we were each responsible for writing a program & making all the props); or spending the entire day traveling from site to site by either helicopter or jeep to the various units we'd be presenting a program to (we traveled in pairs when we programmed). The days were long.

    When not at work, in the evening I was probably at a club - socializing and drinking. At Cam Ranh Army, we had a "living room" at our hooch so we could stay at home and just be with each other, or those we'd invite over. I remember having time to read a great deal -- mostly at night when I'd stay "home." By the time I got to Cu Chi, I found myself spending more and more time by myself. I think I got tired of the partying.

    We got up early every morning and got to bed late at night. We also had strict curfews, although I cannot remember what time we got locked in. And yes, we really were locked in for the night.

    back to the top

  23. Describe a Red Cross Recreation Center.
  24. We did not serve "food" - I was in the USO club in Saigon and it seemed they had a snack bar. But their place was so "quiet." Our center in Cam Ranh was a crazy place in which to be. There was always something going on. Especially in the evenings -- guitars strumming, a cutthroat game of Hearts or Pinochle tournaments, always someone playing pool, some just reading (we had lots and lots of paperbacks shipped in from the States regularly). We served Kool-Aid all the time, and coffee and cake on Sunday mornings. The various chefs from the different units were always trying to out do each other for the sheet cakes made for our Sunday morning coffee calls. We celebrated birthdays (candles in a cardboard cake). We spent hours and hours just talking with the guys in the center. We had tapes sent from the states with the latest music - especially folk songs from Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Limelighters. It was a busy, busy place to be. And if you weren’t on "center" duty, you’d be working in the office writing your next clubmobile program, or hospital book, or building props. There was ALWAYS something to do! And I loved it! And I still miss it!!

    back to the top

  25. What was it like to visit the hospitals?
  26. Sometimes it was really hard. For me, though, this was a very important part of my job and extremely rewarding. We took hospital books* to break the ice. But mainly, we were there, smiling and being our cheerful selves. We had to let the guys know that we were not repulsed or shocked at how they looked -- for if we could accept them the way they looked, then maybe things would be okay when they got home. I think it was very important.

    * Since the soldiers in the hospitals were unable to participate in our fun and games, we wrote "hospital books" which contained jokes, cartoons, puzzles, pencil games . . . things the guys could do on their own.

    back to the top

  27. Where did you live and eat while in Vietnam?
  28. At Cam Ranh Army, I roomed by myself. My room consisted of an army cot, mosquito netting, and a table. We kept all our belongings in personal footlockers (mine was red plaid, which I had purchased from Sears). There were six of us in a little "house" that had been built next to finance. We were surrounded by concertina wire and had an armed guard walking around the perimeter of our place and finance (which was next door) at all times of the day and night. We were required to pay for all the meals we ate at the mess halls. It seems that we did a lot of our own cooking on an electric skillet, or we ate at the Officer’s Club.

    In Bien Hoa, I lived in an old french villa. I think there were four of us in our room - - which had probably been the living room. It was right off the courtyard. The other girls were together upstairs. We were in bunk beds there (with the ever present mosquito netting). Breakfast was usually down at one of the other villas (the helicopter guys had their own kitchen & I usually ate there - - I know we paid for these meals). Most lunches were in the field with the guys - wherever they were, that is where we ate. That gave us extra time with the guys - sometimes we'd serve chow, which really was fun - and it caused a lot of surprised looks from the guys.

    In Cu Chi, I again had my own room. We had two separate structures with three (I think) bedrooms in each. Our shower and latrines were in a separate building between our two houses. Our "living room" was outside the sleeping compound and was half office and half living room. I don't remember eating much in Cu Chi (except when on clubmobile runs). Sometimes, though, we were required to eat with the General. I usually tried to get out of that. I think I drank more than ate those final three months in country.

    back to the top

  29. What were the bathroom facilities like?
  30. At Cam Ranh, we had a 3-seater outhouse, which we called the Rose Room. Because our hooch was on the main road into the camp, the guys built an enclosed hallway from our hooch out to the outhouse. That way we had a little bit of privacy when we had to visit the facility. Inside our hooch, we had a large room with 2 showers, hot water courtesy of the sun heating the large drums on top the roof. There were 2 sinks in which to wash up, but the water was non-potable. That means we had to pour potable water from water cans (delivered daily, I think) into cups in order to brush our teeth.

    At Bien Hoa, we had indoor plumbing (although non-potable) and a water heater! We actually had a flush toilet and a bathtub. However, the center had outhouses. And at Cu Chi, we had a separate shower, toilet, sink facility between our two "cabins" which depended on the sun for heat and potable water for brushing our teeth.

    When we were in the field, the guys usually fixed up a place for us to use. Let’s face it, there is no way you can be out all day and not have to go sometime! One place built us our own outhouse – with a mirror and fresh flowers inside. Another unit put brown butcher paper around the outside of the outhouse in order to give us a little bit of privacy. You just learned to always "go" whenever you had the chance and not to drink too much liquid if you were going to be where the guys relieved themselves in front of nature. After all, when you are in the jungle or digging in, there is not time to build a bathroom.

    back to the top

  31. How did you dress in Vietnam?
  32. I was in Nam from April 1966 to April 1967. From the photos I have seen of women there at a later time, some of the ARC restrictions had either changed or were ignored. Our basic uniform was powder blue & white dresses (or culottes) and black penny loafers (which later was changed to light blue sneakers). For Sunday coffee call and special command appearances, we wore a two-piece Class A suit, with a small hat, and short heels. Originally, Washington (National Red Cross) had wanted us to wear girdles and stockings (this was before panty hose). That lasted about 3 minutes. With the heat and humidity, practicality took over! And with time, as the 60s progressed into the 70s, the hemlines got shorter. Side note: it was a shock returning to the States and seeing how short the hemlines had gotten. I was seriously out of style when I returned.

    When I went over, we were "required" to wear our hair above the collar. But, because of the heat and humidity, this was done anyway. Pony tails and pig tails were frequently worn by girls who had long hair - it was just way too hot to wear it down. And, because it was so humid, we wore very little makeup, although we always had fresh lipstick and a splash of perfume . . . it was part of reminding the guys of "home" (the USA). As far as jewelry goes, small pierced earrings were okay. Later pictures show girls wearing "love beads." But, since we were in uniform, jewelry was usually at a minimum - a ring, a watch, a small necklace maybe. But these restrictions were only for when we were on duty and did not affect the way we dressed when off duty.

    back to the top

  33. Did you have any kind of nightlife?
  34. Yes - While in Cam Ranh, I developed a singing group, which went on to become an organized folk-singing group - we even "toured" the group around our area performing folk songs of the era. Later, in Bien Hoa, I hung out with a group of helicopter pilots that had a club down the street. In Cu Chi, as I was really getting tired and ending my tour, I spent more time by myself. There was one small club that I went to some, but I did not party as much. However, alcohol was a big part of our "night life."

    back to the top

  35. What was Christmas like?
  36. Christmas was for the guys. On Christmas day, all the girls in our unit went out to different units in the field. While there, we had Christmas dinner with the guys - when I say "the guys," I do not mean the officers. We almost always worked with the enlisted men (boys). I was out at a forward location, so we ate in mess tents that had been set up. Later, several helicopters took us to Cu Chi where we got to see the Bob Hope show. It was quite a day!

    back to the top

  37. Describe your friendships (male and female).
  38. I made two lasting female friendships from Vietnam. The first was with a girl I trained with in Washington DC (we were given 2 weeks "training" before we were sent to Vietnam) and then was stationed with during my first 6 months in country. The second friendship was rekindled at the Women's Memorial dedication in Washington DC with a woman who had been my unit director at my first assignment. The other friendships were more temporary. Male friendships were also temporary and based on where I was assigned.

    As for individual friendships while in Nam, we always paired up with different women in the unit. Our units usually consisted of about six women. As with any group, you normally find that you get along better with some women than others - the same was true there. In my case, my work and social life stayed with the Red Cross girls I was stationed with. I had very little contact with other women who were also in Vietnam.

    Since 1993, I have made new friendships with women who also served. It has been a wonderful learning and healing experience.

    back to the top

  39. What is your fondest memory of the women who were over there?
  40. We had a lot of fun together. We were all there for the same reason, to be there for the guys, and so everything we did was focused in that direction. I don't remember any competitiveness between us. We seemed to get along really well.

    back to the top

  41. Did you ever encounter sexual harassment?
  42. Not too much. There were a couple of guys who thought we were there for them, but we always had "big brothers" who watched out for our well being and protection. If you had a problem, they could handle it for you. I was very lucky in that my day to day activities did not put me in situations where I had to deal with unwanted sexual advances or harassment. We always traveled in pairs, and there is safety in numbers.

    back to the top

  43. What was it like to go through "friendly fire?"
  44. I remember listening to "outgoing" rounds - they became part of the regular noise and we just got used to it.

    back to the top

  45. What would you like people to remember and understand most about the women who served?
  46. We were there because we wanted to be there. We were there to bring some joy and distraction into the lives of the guys . . . and we did it the best we knew how! We gave a lot of energy, and when we had no strength for another smile, we smiled anyway.

    back to the top

  47. Is there a part of you still there?
  48. I think there probably is. It was a very intense year. Even when we were not on duty, we were still on duty (if that makes sense). We lived our jobs 24 hours a day - there is no way I could not leave a part of me there.

    back to the top

  49. How different are you from the time you began your tour of duty to the time you came home?
  50. I became very independent while in Nam. I learned that I could make decisions and do things on my own. However, when I got back to the states, I did not have the same feeling of worth that I did while in Nam. The self-confidence I gained in Nam was wiped away when I came back. I felt worthwhile in Nam - but could not even find a decent job when I came back. My experience in Nam counted for nothing. I felt valuable in Nam, and the skills I needed there were not and are not recognized back here.

    back to the top

  51. What (if anything) do you miss most?
  52. I really miss the people - I really saw the good sides of people while there. I also miss the intensity of the job and the satisfaction I got out of my job. Now, when it is time to go home, I leave the job behind and never think about it. All jobs have paled in comparison to the satisfaction I got while in Nam. There was excitement and a real challenge to being a Donut Dollie!

    back to the top

  53. What was it like to be a woman in Vietnam?
  54. I think it was wonderful! Where else could you ever be appreciated for being a woman? There were some awkward moments (mostly to do with feminine hygiene and finding restrooms when out in the field), but on the whole -- it was great! Especially since I had never had that kind of attention in the States. It was like being in a make believe world - nothing was very real in Vietnam - it was a moment to moment existence.

    back to the top

  55. How were you treated when you came home?
  56. I was expected to fit right in, as if I had never been to "war." I was expected just to go out and get another job and get on with life. I felt as if I had to find a husband, have a family, and become the "educated" housewife that I had been destined to be. I did not feel as if I had many choices - I really felt I had to "conform" to the way I had been raised. I did not get a chance to decompress. I was more exhausted, physically and mentally, than traumatized by the horrors of Nam. Yet, even now, I still have dreams about going back because I am needed - and I go.

    back to the top

  57. What is it like being a female veteran of Vietnam?
  58. Today, I am proud of it. However, I am a civilian veteran, and that means the government does not consider me a veteran. That fact irritates me greatly!

    back to the top

  59. What do you think of the play, "A Piece of My Heart"?
  60. I have participated as a technical advisor for a production of this play, and participated in the veteran panels following the shows. I feel the play focuses on the nurses who did an outstanding job in Vietnam. The nurses focused more on the guys who were physically injured whereas the Donut Dollies focused on the morale of the guys, both in support areas and out in the field. As a DD, we were expected to smile for a full year and we learned to stuff anything that got in the way of that outward smile. I think the play does a good job in showing how stressful it was. There are a couple of things which bother me, but on the whole, it is a powerful show and one that should be seen.

    back to the top

  61. Did going to war have a greater personal impact on men or women? It seems the men have suffered more.
  62. I think that maybe we have just not been as visible. The movie "Fourth of July" was about a male vet, not a female vet, etc., etc. (Platoon, Deer Hunter). We got "China Beach" - whereas it wasn't factual, it at least let people know that there were women in Vietnam. There were also, in numbers, more guys in Nam than gals. I couldn't begin to venture as to the percentage of women with PTSD (most especially the nurses) as compared to men, but I'd venture to guess that our percentage is pretty high. We just don't get crazy with a gun and shoot up the place, thereby making the 6:00 news.

  63. How can I find out more about your experience, or see more of your photos?
  64. You can check out my web page at http://www.illyria.com/rccummings.html. Or write me at grandmomsdc@yahoo.com.

 

 

© Copyright 2004-2010, by Sharon D. Cummings. All Rights Reserved.
May be freely used and copied for educational and other non-commercial purposes.