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This Day in History: The Donut Dollies of Vietnam

At about this time in 1973, the American Red Cross moves the last of its personnel out of Vietnam. The Red Cross helped American troops in many ways during those years, including one program officially known as the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas.


Informally, the women who participated were known as the “Donut Dollies.”


“Armed only with smiles and hand-made games,” the Donut Dollies documentary website explains, “the Donut Dollies risked their lives every day to achieve their mission of cheering up and bringing a sense of home to the U.S. troops.” 

Of course, the Red Cross wouldn’t let just anyone serve as a Donut Dollie. Only college graduates were accepted. The girls had to be at least 21 years old, with good letters of recommendation. Written permission from their parents was a must.


Once in Vietnam, the Dollies worked in Red Cross recreational centers, or they traveled by helicopters, jeeps, and trucks to more remote troop encampments. At its peak, 110 women were operating 17 SRAO units in Vietnam. Nearly 300,000 troops were participating per month.


“We kept them grounded, so that they knew they could go home,” Sherry Taylor said. After all, if our soldiers could laugh, even for a little bit, then maybe they could also believe that home still existed on the other side of that terrible war.


“We wore baby-blue seersucker dresses,” Nancy Smoyer describes. “The guys all around us had flak jackets, helmets, and weapons and we were in our little blue dresses. The incongruity was amazing. We always tried to wear lipstick and perfume and look our best for the guys, but unlike being home, our looks weren’t important. The guys were just so appreciative to see American girls.”


Connie Dugan Popel agreed. “I think my role was to be myself,” she said. “I’m known for my smile and I smiled and smiled and smiled. And I think that I represented maybe an American girl who cared, who hoped that I brought some kind of happiness for a second in a horrible, horrible war.”


In an interesting twist, some of the Dollies were girls who had protested the war as college students. Nevertheless, they went to support the soldiers, recognizing that not all were there by choice. Their brothers or cousins could just as easily have been among the drafted. Now the Dollies went overseas in a show of support.


“We never went off duty,” Joann Puffer Kotcher says. “We smiled 24 hours a day and waved at everybody we saw. They always waved back. Sometimes they whooped and hollered. I never felt more appreciated in my life.”


The Dollies left such an impression on Army Lt. Jim Roberts that he spent years looking for two of them after the war. He had their photos but not their names.


He’d known them for only a few hours in Vietnam. He’d been stationed in a remote village when a helicopter carrying the two Dollies stopped nearby. They weren’t there long, but the time they’d spent with him had been a spot of joy in an otherwise lonely time.


He finally found them a few years ago with the help of a Washington Post reporter. Their names are Gwen Hejl Roussel and Karen Jankowski.


“What I’ve wanted to do all this time was just to say, ‘Thank you,’” Roberts told them, overcome with emotion when he saw the two ladies. It must have been quite a moment. “Fifty years later to hear you say, ‘Thank you,’ with such emotion,” Roussel responded, “it’s so meaningful. I just feel like, ‘Wow. Wow. We made a difference.’”


Nevertheless, she didn’t see those years in the same way that Roberts did.


“I was the one that was grateful,” she shrugged. “I received so much more than I could have been given.”

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