In response to a request by the military, the Red Cross sent teams of young female college graduates to Southeast Asia to conduct audience-participation recreation programs for men stationed in isolated sections of the region.
The original concept of a group of volunteer women to serve coffee and donuts to soldiers began with the Salvation Army during World War I.
"In 1917, two women named Margaret Sheldon and Helen Purviance had the idea that making hot donuts would bring smiles to soldiers' faces. They could get the ingredients needed, and so they set about bringing happiness to the men with unexpected donuts. As the popularity of their pastries increased, between the pair of them they figured out how to make 2,500 donuts a day…"
The women at that time were called Donut Lassies who were there to offer a bit of home by serving coffee, donuts, and other food. They talked to the soldiers who needed a respite from the grind of war. Simply put, they volunteered to boost morale. These women continued these supportive efforts through World War II, Korea, and then Vietnam. I found no record of the presence of Donut Dollies in a war zone since that time. Nearly 700 women served in Vietnam in the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program of the American Red Cross. Colloquially, they were known as Donut Dollies, most were in their twenties, and they all had to be college graduates. Given that these women were routinely taken by helicopter to forward operational bases, the danger they were in was real and immediate. Consequently, like every U.S. soldier, male and female, the Dollies wore metal dog tags (for body identification) in the event they were wounded or killed.
Three Dollies actually died while in country. Hannah E. Crews died in a jeep accident, in Bien Hoa, October 2, 1969. Lucinda J. Richter died of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, in Cam Ranh Bay, February 9, 1971. Virginia "Ginny" Kirsch was murdered by a U.S. soldier in Cu Chi, August 16, 1970. They did not die from hostile fire but they had volunteered, at the request of the armed services, to serve in a combat zone with its inherent dangers. That is why I think it is appropriate on Memorial Day to recognize these three women and those Dollies who have since passed away. In November, on Veterans Day, we can also acknowledge the service of the hundreds of Donut Dollies who returned alive from the war zone and are still with us. We may also ask ourselves if the country owes these women support for some of the same issues that plague the military members who served in Vietnam: Post Traumatic Stress and Agent Orange.
I think we do. It is NOT too late.
I have a personal connection with the Donut Dollies, although my remote location in Vietnam, and having a small team of three, never put me in direct contact with them. A distant cousin, Eileen Conoboy, (pictured above - front row right) served along with a high school classmate, Linda Morgan Maini, also pictured above to the left of Eileen. I never knew Eileen, who died young of some sort of degenerative disease after returning to the U.S. I have spoken recently with Linda, who knew Eileen, and who actually served two tours in Vietnam, first as a Donut Dollie in the SRAO program in Da Nang, Lai Khe and Di An and another tour in the SMH, (Service to Military Hospitals) at the 12th Evacuation Hospital, located in Cu Chi. I encourage all readers to read a transcript of Linda's oral history interview taken at the University of North Carolina (Greensboro) Women Veterans Historical Project here.
Reportedly, there is legislation to provide support, perhaps in the way of mental health services and disability payments, to surviving members of the SRAO and SMH programs. A recent post on a Military Intelligence Facebook site spoke about Rep Mickie Sherrill of NJ (a former Navy helicopter pilot) submitting legislation under the rubric, "Ginny's Law" (the murdered Donut Dollie) to include coverage for Donut Dollies for service-related issues. My several calls and an email to Sherrill's offices in DC and NJ have not been answered. I left a query at Rep. Rick Larsen's office in Everett with the same result, no response. .
There is no reason that these women (as well as male Red Cross workers in Vietnam - two of whom also died in country) cannot be supported by the Defense Department and Veterans Administration under the same rules regarding treatment of our military veterans. They deserve the same mental health treatment and disability payments for Agent Orange exposure under the presumptive criteria now in place. Between now and Veteran's Day in November, I will continue to pursue this with the intention of eventually obtaining legislation of the type described above
Because, let's remember, it was military services that asked the Dollies to go into the war zone in the first place.