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Vietnam’s Donut Dollies: Unsung, They Served, Too

A documentary on the women sent to the war zone to boost morale

When I stop to think about how Norm Anderson and I came to this conversation we’re having, I scratch my head and say the one word that connects me and so many in my generation to Norm and others: Vietnam.

It turns out that Norm’s mom, Dorset, was a member of the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program, affectionately referred to as “Donut Dollies.” And as with so much of the story of the Vietnam War and the 1960s, female voices like hers have been muted.

But not for long.

That’s because Norm is a pretty adept filmmaker — an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and documentary filmmaker with credits on a variety of shows and networks. He’s spent the last 15 years traveling the U.S. to film interviews with several Donut Dollies like his mom and to gain access to their personal archives, including photos, diaries and vintage film. He’s weaving it all into an upcoming documentary.

(MORE: How Should We Curate Vietnam?)

“I’ve learned so much about the dedication and bravery of these women,” he says, pointing out that they were often armed with nothing but cookies, Kool-Aid and homemade entertainment programs.

When I asked Norm if his mom ever talked about her role in the Vietnam War when he was growing up, he said no. Not surprising since that’s the same with most Vietnam vets and nurses, too. So many of us have buried that pain and angst and adrenaline, even the Donut Dollies.

“I remember when I was growing up that I asked my mom about a scar she had on her leg,” he told me on the phone from his California home. “She didn’t volunteer much, but when I was little older she admitted that she got the scar from one of her many helicopter rides in Vietnam. My mother had been in Vietnam and I didn’t even know it!”

Symbols of Purity And Goodness

Not many people know their story, even as the 50th anniversary of the first Dollies landing in Vietnam approaches.

Donut Dollies were single, female college graduates who were volunteers in a Red Cross program meant to boost morale for U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. Like Dorset, many of these young women were motivated by John F. Kennedy’s call to duty and service.

Their training manuals instructed them to present themselves as reminders of girlfriends, wives and sisters waiting back home. As one SRAO member told me, Donut Dollies were to be “nonsexual symbols of purity and goodness.”

(MORE: How a Piece of Shrapnel Changed My Father’s Life)

“As Donut Dollies, our job was to lift the guys’ spirits,” says Jeanne Christie, a native of Madison, Wisc., who now lives in Bethel, Conn. Like Dorset, she was fresh out of college in late 1966 and looking for something different and interesting to do. By January of 1967, she was in Vietnam, keeping members of the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Air Force company.

Dollies logged 2 million helicopter air miles crossing Vietnam to cheer up the troops.

“We brought a little bit of home with us,” explains Christie. “We’d listen to them. We’d play games and records at the base Rec centers.”

“But it wasn’t easy being a Donut Dollie,” she adds. “Some people thought we were there just to tease men. We were wrong, or bad, because we were over there. That’s so untrue.”

Appreciated But Unrecognized

As Norm explains: “My mom was young, curious and adventuresome. It was 1968. Vietnam was all over the news. She wanted to see for herself what was going on, so she went to Vietnam.”

(MORE: James Brown, Vietnam and Race)

I encountered a number of Donut Dollies during my year in Vietnam (1970-71). But with the abundant benefits of living and working the rear, I was pretty much oblivious to their service and sacrifice. Except that every time I left the friendly confines of the air-conditioned jungle to write about the “real” war, I was struck by how much the guys in the field admired the Donut Dollies — truly appreciated their smiles and cheerfulness.

But it wasn’t until much later, when my friend Heather Stur was completing her excellent book about the Vietnam War — Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era that I grasped the significance of who these women were and all that they did.

With Heather’s help, my UW-Madison colleague Craig Werner and I were able to interview Jeannie Christie and other Donut Dollies about their service in Vietnam for our upcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Their stories are no less profound and eloquent than those of any of the Vietnam veterans we’ve talked to.

Norm has begun production on his feature length documentary, The Donut Dollies. His motivation? “To give these women the thanks they deserve,” he told me.

Norm successfully wrapped a Kickstarter campaign so he can take his mother and her best friend, a fellow Donut Dollie whom he calls “Auntie Mary,” back to Vietnam to retrace the steps where they were stationed nearly a half-century ago.

His mom is thrilled by the prospect. “She’s excited to be returning to Vietnam,” Norm told me. “She’s looking forward to seeing the people and places that made such an impact on her life.

“It’s been over 46 years since I left Vietnam,” Dorsett said in a statement, “but hardly a day goes by without thinking about it.”

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