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Donut Dolly

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Donut Dolly puts you in the Vietnam War face down in the dirt under a sniper attack, inside a helicopter being struck by lightning, at dinner next to a commanding general, and slogging through the mud along a line of foxholes. You see the war through the eyes of one of the first women officially allowed in the combat zone. When Joann Puffer Kotcher left for Vietnam in 1966, she was fresh out of the University of Michigan with a year of teaching, and a year as an American Red Cross Donut Dolly in Korea. All she wanted was to go someplace exciting. In Vietnam, she visited troops from the Central Highlands to the Mekong Delta, from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border. At four duty stations, she set up recreation centers and made mobile visits wherever commanders requested. That included Special Forces Teams in remote combat zone jungles. She brought reminders of home, thoughts of a sister or the girl next door. Officers asked her to take risks because they believed her visits to the front lines were important to the men. Every Vietnam veteran who meets her thinks of her as a brother-at-arms. Donut Dolly is Kotcher's personal view of the war, recorded in a journal kept during her tour, day by day as she experienced it. It is a faithful representation of the twists and turns of the turbulent, controversial time. While in Vietnam, Kotcher was once abducted; dodged an ambush in the Delta; talked with a true war hero in a hospital who had charged a machine gun; and had a conversation with a prostitute. A rare account of an American Red Cross volunteer in Vietnam, Donut Dolly will appeal to those interested in the Vietnam War, to those who have interest in the military, and to women aspiring to go beyond the ordinary.

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Chapter 1 ✚ On My Way to the War


✚ C ha p t e r 1 ✚

On My Way to the War


uring the Civil War neighbors would load up a wagon with quilts, food, and any other supplies they could spare for the soldiers.

Sometimes a young, unmarried woman went. Someone, maybe a grandmother, would risk her life to drive the wagon as close to the fighting as she dared. The young woman would stay to help in the hospital. The wagon would return with wounded to be cared for at home.

The Donut Dollies were part of that tradition. Clarissa Harlowe

Barton, or Clara Barton, was one of those women.1 When she was 60

years old she founded the American Red Cross on that legacy of volunteer service. She ran the charity for over 20 years until she retired in

1904 at the age of 83.2

In World War I my grandmother’s sister was a Red Cross nurse in

France. Her diary records that she attended a dance at a Red Cross Center. In 1917 the Red Cross started canteens where 55,000 volunteers served food and snacks to servicemen around the world.3 In 1918 the

Red Cross began hospital recreation in the United States. The ladies wore gray dresses and veils. Patients called them “The Gray Ladies.” Almost 24,000 Red Cross nurses served the military. By war’s end, nearly one-third of the US population was either a donor or volunteer. The


Chapter 2 ✚ A Blacked-Out Runway


✚ C ha p t e r 2 ✚

A Blacked-Out Runway

Friday, May 6, 1966, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam


ini-skirts came in. Detroit rolled out the Ford Mustang. Martin

Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala-

bama; and pot was still something to cook in. I was leaving that world and entering another.

The 707 descended, and just before its wheels touched the runway,

I refreshed my makeup. I was there to bring the soldiers reminders of home. Some of them hadn’t seen an American girl since they arrived in

Vietnam. The sun had long set. Out the window I saw flashes of artillery fire on the horizon all around the sparse lights of Saigon. America’s involvement in the war had just begun, and within six months, my old unit, the 1st Cavalry, would mark its one-year anniversary. Soldiers had started to rotate home. My introduction to real war began.

I was the only girl on board a chartered passenger jet filled with identical crew cuts and khaki, pressed uniforms. We had crossed the International Date Line, and I couldn’t figure out what day it was. I didn’t know whether we had lost a day or gained a day. We stopped for 20 minutes in Honolulu and for a short time at Clark Air Force Base, in the Philippines. A few other women had boarded at San Francisco, but when we left Clark they were gone. At the start of the flight all the men


Chapter 3 ✚ A Disguise to Fool a Sniper


✚ C ha p t e r 3 ✚

A Disguise to Fool a Sniper

May 1966, An Khe, South Vietnam


uring my assignment at An Khe the war became personal. Our recreation center sat next to the hospital, so we saw many patients.

One man was proud of his face. “My scars are better than all of my buddies’.” One anticipated his recovery, “The muscle in this arm was so messed up, the doctors took it out. Now the muscle underneath will build up and take its place. I’ll be as good as new.” Another was amazed,

“The dentist put my teeth back together.” Still another showed me how he could light a cigarette with one hand while the other was in a sling.

All of them bragged about what great medical care they were getting.

A doctor in the mess explained, “If the Medevacs can get a wounded man to the hospital, he has a 98 percent chance of survival. We don’t count head wounds.” What a relief I felt to conclude that Hollywood was wrong; all the soldiers don’t die. Some live to continue being heroes.

We usually scheduled two girls in the recreation center, a short distance from our living quarters, while the other two visited troops around the division. Men came and went at the center all day and evening. We tried to have coffee and some kind of juice available; sometimes we had food. One day Sandra arrived with two fresh loaves of bread. “I talked the guys at the bakery into giving us these.” Her slicing


Chapter 4 ✚ Hot Landing Zone


✚ C ha p t e r 4 ✚

Hot Landing Zone

Monday July 25, 1966, An Khe, South Vietnam


bout two weeks before I transferred from An Khe to Dong Ba

Thin, Sandra and I were working in the office. Opening the mail,

she mumbled to herself, “Here’s a letter from the division commander.

I wonder what he has to say.” She opened the letter. She startled. “It’s an invitation to dinner at the general’s mess. This is big.” She glanced at the calendar, and then reached for the phone. “We’ll have to clear a couple of things from the schedule. I’d better call them back right away and let them know we’re coming.” At that dinner we would meet the general’s aides, the brightest bachelor officers.

Wherever we went, we were quickly surrounded by attractive, intelligent men. But we never knew which ones were married. This general had certified his aides to be single.

In training, the Red Cross director had warned, “Some men will not tell you that they are married. If you want to know if a man is married, ask his commander. He will know, and tell you.”


Chapter 5 ✚ Poison Booth at the Carnival


✚ C ha p t e r 5 ✚

Poison Booth at the Carnival

Saturday, August 6, 1966, Dong Ba Thin, South Vietnam


ome secrets are meant to be shared, some to be hidden. Dong Ba

Thin was a self-contained civilization, a small unit with Susie, Gini,

and me. My new home was a green Quonset hut. It sat in the middle of an open area away from other buildings. There was a perfect palm tree in the front yard. No guards, no barbed wire, and no bunker. Inside, the hut had the same configuration as our tent at An Khe: a sitting room in the front and small bedrooms partitioned off in the back. You could hear everything in the house. A small patio with a privacy fence on two sides adjoined the house. We could lie outside and sunbathe.

Every morning my clock radio woke me up to Adrian Cronauer’s morning show. He was on Armed Forces Radio in Cam Ranh Bay.

Robin Williams made Cronauer famous in 1987 in the movie, Good

Morning, Vietnam.1 I hadn’t heard him at An Khe. He was as good as any radio personality in the States, and he had a unique signature program opening. He greeted every new day with a hearty and elongated


Chapter 6 ✚ Bring a Case of Beer


✚ C ha p t e r 6 ✚

Bring a Case of Beer

Saturday, October 15, 1966, Di An, South Vietnam


aybe it was my country-girl upbringing. Maybe it was because I had to live up to my father’s job as a school superintendent, but

I never saw it coming. I was abducted. The 1st Infantry Division had acquired their nickname, the Big Red One, during World War II. Their motto, “If you’re going to be one, be a big red one,” left me wondering if I should blush. The 1st Infantry Division had arrived in Vietnam just one year before, in October 1965, and only one month after the 1st

Cavalry.1 Six girls made Di An a large Red Cross unit. Dee had a black

puppy, Sam; Peggy had a white puppy, Horatio. When I opened a door,

I never knew when one of them was going to explode to greet me. Our house, a spacious, new, permanent building, had a cement floor and screen and louver sides. It sat in a comfortable area in the shade of a grove of trees.

On my first workday, Linda, the unit director, taller than me, gentle and modest, led me down a short path and then a few yards along a gravel road to the recreation center. Excited, I anticipated my new assignment and the adventures it might hold. My heart beat a little harder and a little stronger than usual. I would have never guessed the surprise that waited for me. Linda and I rounded a bend, and I caught


Chapter 7 ✚ A Veteran under the Desk


✚ C ha p t e r 7 ✚

A Veteran under the Desk

Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24, 1966, Phu Loi, South



n Thanksgiving we got caught in the enemy’s crossfire. The authorities in Vietnam confined most women to relatively safe rear

areas. However, in Vietnam, commanders allowed the Red Cross girls to go where few went. We traveled to visit the men everywhere, even to the foxholes, as Sandra and I had done at Buon Blech. Thanksgiving Day,

Dee (DeMaris) Walton and I planned to visit the 1st Infantry Division’s

2/2nd Infantry in their field position at Phu Loi. As soon as we arrived,

our escort, the Battalion S-1 Personnel/Administration Officer, Capt.

Jerald D. Fuhriman,1 found that we would have to wait. He told us, “B and C Companies are in a firefight, and everyone else is in an awards ceremony.” Even Army Chief of Staff Gen. William C. Westmoreland was there. “We can’t see units in the field or in base camp until after the ceremony.” We knew we could not present a recreation program on this visit, but we hoped to serve Thanksgiving dinner at as many places as possible. It would give the men a chance to talk to an American girl, probably for the only time in their year in Vietnam.


Chapter 8 ✚ Rabies


✚ C ha p t e r 8 ✚


Wednesday, December 7, 1966, Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, Pearl Harbor



he last gift I wanted for Christmas in 1966 was rabies. I arrived at

Bien Hoa with the second Christmas tree that my parents had sent

from their plantation. I thought the girls would be thrilled to put the tree in the recreation center. Everyone at Di An had loved the live tree.

I was shocked to learn that not everybody at Bien Hoa agreed. They already had something in the center that I considered just short of sacrilegious: a plastic tree. I struggled to understand their attitude. I took my tree to the officer’s club. The manager, a lieutenant, reminded me of the sergeant at the hotel, and before him, Sergeant White at the Enlisted

Men’s Club at An Khe. The lieutenant looked dignified but harassed; however, he had the right attitude. He thanked me when I offered him the tree, and gave me a broad, enthusiastic smile. He cradled the treasure in his arms and carried it straight to his office. I saw him set it next to his desk and pick up the telephone.


Chapter 9 ✚ Ambush in the Delta


✚ C ha p t e r 9 ✚

Ambush in the Delta


ometimes the places we thought were the safest were the opposite.

One day I received an audiocassette tape from my parents. They

talked about what was going on, and told me they had just added a new room, with a fireplace, to the farm house. On the tape, they had recorded sounds of my father stoking the fire. I played the tape on the equipment at the center, available for anyone to use. Guys came in every once in a while to play tapes from home. I felt bad for one man. He told me, “My wife is mad at me. She’s not speaking to me, so she sent me a

90-minute tape that turned out to be blank, nothing on it.” Telling me about it seemed to make him feel better.

I thought my buddies, the pilots, would enjoy hearing my dad stoke the fireplace. I took the tape to supper the next day, and sure enough, the pilots were eager to hear it. One man volunteered that he had a tape player in his room. The dozen pilots pushed back their chairs. The scraping sounds echoed through the empty mess hall. We all trooped the 50 feet to the man’s room.1 He was proud to show it off, one of a


Chapter 10 ✚ The Cigarette in the Rain


✚ C ha p t e r 1 0 ✚

The Cigarette in the Rain


ometimes the wisdom of our decisions surprises us. Choosing between one form of death and another is no simple matter. Back in

late August, for several days it had been hot at Dong Ba Thin. At dinner some of the officers traded war stories about the heat. One said, “Two days ago it was 110 degrees in the tent at the airstrip.” I had experienced high 90s in a tent at Di An, but not 110 degrees.

The next one said, “In the sun it was 134 degrees.”

The third one topped them all. “On the steel paving of the runway it was 145 degrees. I have people who have gotten blisters on their feet from walking on it, through their boots.”

(About) April 25, Bien Hoa

Almost every night after dinner the company showed a movie on a screen they set up outdoors behind the officer’s club. Everyone would bring a chair. One night, as usual, we pulled our chairs into rows and traded lighthearted jokes. We anticipated a story to entertain us and distract us from the tension that surrounded us. The movie was an old-fashioned western. In one scene the villain stampeded the herd. A hero good guy was thrown from his horse. We saw him go down under the thundering cattle. The man sitting next to me, one of the Cowboys


Chapter 11 ✚ The Long, Confusing Road Home


✚ C ha p t e r 1 1 ✚

The Long, Confusing

Road Home

May 14, 1967, United States of America


fter being in the combat zone, I never guessed I would be ambushed in my hometown Flint, Michigan. On this day I would

fly home from the Republic of South Vietnam. I had been a civilian, non-combatant, supported and protected by the military units I served.

After two years, one in Korea and one in Vietnam, I traveled to Tan Son

Nhut Air Base, my departure point from Southeast Asia. From there, traveling alone, I flew to San Francisco to check in and clear at the Red

Cross office.

At the San Francisco airport, I stopped at the first restaurant and told the waiter, “I’d like a glass of milk, please.” It was the most urgent thing I wanted. I had some milk on the R&R plane to Singapore, but it was European, and didn’t taste exactly like home. In the States, a glass of milk was an unusual order, so I explained, “I just came in from Vietnam. We only had powdered milk, and you could taste the powder. We missed fresh milk more than anything.”






oon after I returned from Vietnam, outside the window of my apartment I could see young people going on with their lives. They

didn’t do anything remarkable. They swam in the pool. Washed their cars. Talked to each other; everyday activities that were normal to them, but that had become foreign to me. I had been in Vietnam for a year, during the intense beginnings of the conflict. Soldiers my age, the same age as the people I now watched, engaged an enemy. That was a lofty assignment for kids out of school. How different were the young men I now watched from the soldiers I had left? Not much, except the military had trained the soldiers to react to war, to defend themselves and others. But sooner or later, everyone in the military goes home. They return to buying groceries, worry about paying bills, and getting their dreams in order, the same things the people I looked at were doing.

As I unpacked my memories of the last year, I thought how differ-

ent my life was in Vietnam. How quiet it was here. How I now had the right to make my own decisions, to drive my own car, to choose what


Appendix 1 ✚ Let Us Remember


✚ a p p e n di x 1 ✚

Let Us Remember


he first Red Cross units in Vietnam opened in 1965. In the peak year of 1969, 110 young women operated 17 SRAO units. It was

estimated that they reached nearly 300,000 servicemen each month.

(American Red Cross Press Release, May 26, 1972.) Maggie Hodge1 calculated that each pair of girls “might easily see 200 troops a day.”

The last unit closed in May 1972. In a Certificate of Appreciation sent to American Red Cross President George M. Elsey when the program ended, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Commanding General, US

Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, wrote: “The young women who were the core of this program’s success contributed materially to the improvement of the morale of the servicemen assigned to Vietnam. Their personal dedication and attitude reflected favorably on the

American Red Cross and assisted the commander in the field in the accomplishment of his mission.” (American Red Cross Press Release,

May 26, 1972)

Three Donut Dollies lost their lives in Vietnam and one was wounded. These four young women deserve to be honored and remembered.


Appendix 2 ✚ Some Questions Answered


✚ a p p e n di x 2 ✚

Some Questions Answered


tatistics compiled after the war tell us more of the story. We know that 2,600,0001 Americans served in Vietnam, and 58,0002 Ameri-

cans lost their lives there. Compare that to 117,000 who lost their lives in WW I; 407,000 in World War II; and 54,000 in Korea. It is sobering to learn that there were 43,000 people killed on the highways in the United

States in each of the years 2002, 2003, and 2004.3 The percentage of people who died in Vietnam was similar to other wars: 2 percent.4 For every 100 people who served in Vietnam, two would die. That’s a lot less than everybody, which was what I thought before I went.

In 2007 I ran into a man at a party who said he was a Vietnam veteran. He told me that the Red Cross girls sold their favors. He knew of commanders who would not let us visit their men because of it. I never heard that rumor in Vietnam. I am sure that, of all the girls I ever met, not one behaved immorally. Moreover, I am sure not one of them slept with or got too friendly with individual soldiers. Those who would assert otherwise are ignorant of our commitment and of the times.


Appendix 3 ✚ Whatever Happened To . . . ?


✚ a p p e n di x 3 ✚

Whatever Happened

To . . . ?


researched online to see if I could find out what happened to some of the people I knew. That search gave me more understanding of

the kind of men I worked with in Vietnam and how the war affected their lives. I found J. S. Brigham, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel, USAR Retired, President of the 7th United States Cavalry Association. He ob-

served, “You must have been there with the Red Cross girls up by the

15th Medical area. The girls had been to our officers club at the 2/7th. I was with Myron diduryk when we came over there one night to pick some of the girls up to come down. Just to get a look at an American girl was always great.”1 He was the scary, tall 1st lieutenant with the big mustache in the faded fatigues. He came to pick us up to go to their party only a day or two after I arrived in country. 1st Lt J. S. Brigham, Jr., retired from the Army Reserve in 1983 as a lieutenant colonel. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Judy. They have three grown children.



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