In honor of Veteran's Day, we are featuring a special guest blogger and expert on women and war, Dr. Heather Marie Stur. She is the author of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II and teaches courses on US foreign relations and women and war at the University of Southern Mississippi University. This piece from her blog The Year of the Cat highlights the story of Emily Strange, who served in the Vietnam War as one of the Donut Dollies - American women who were sent to Vietnam by the American Red Cross and US military to comfort male soldiers. Strange was later featured in Stur's book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era and has since passed away. We honor Emily Strange today and all women who have served the US military, especially those brave enough to tell their stories.
“I STOPPED LEARNING NAMES …”
Emily Strange served in the Vietnam War as a Red Cross “Donut Dollie” with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force.
A few days ago, I learned that Emily Strange, one of the first Donut Dollies I interviewed for Beyond Combat, had passed away July 12. It was a shock to hear that she’s gone, in part because she had randomly popped into my mind before I had heard she’d died, and I had been thinking about the stories she had shared with me when we sat together in the living room of her home in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. That was nearly fifteen years ago, when Beyond Combat was just an idea for a dissertation, but I remember our conversation so vividly. I was a stranger to her, but she welcomed me into her home and told me openly and frankly about her experiences serving with the Red Cross in Vietnam, primarily at Dong Tam with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force. Her job as a Donut Dollie was to be a morale booster, a “touch of home,” for the troops she worked with. Donut Dollies organized parties and sing-alongs, played games, served sweets and cold (well, lukewarm at best in southern Vietnam’s heat) drinks, and listened to soldiers who needed to talk. Sometimes the most important thing a Donut Dollie could do was to sit beside a GI who couldn’t quite articulate all the things he wanted to say about being at war and just be a sympathetic human presence.
One of Emily’s stories that has stuck with me all these years is of her decision to stop learning the names of the guys she met in Vietnam. She had become close with one GI, a young man named Michael. They both played guitar, and when Emily was assigned to Michael’s unit, they’d sometimes sit around and play folk music together. Shortly after Emily’s Red Cross team moved on to another assignment, she learned that Michael had been killed in action. At that moment, she realized that she needed to put distance between herself and the guys she worked with. She needed to figure out a way to do her job of providing emotional comfort to frightened and lonely young men while protecting her own mental well-being. So Emily stopped learning names. She told me that there are probably guys she knows on the Wall, but she won’t have to face the pain of knowing for sure because she stopped learning names after Michael died.
Like so many veterans, Emily struggled to settle back into “the World.” She told me about times when her girlfriends would call her up and invite her to go shopping, and she would wonder how anyone could possibly care about something so frivolous. She knew it wasn’t that her friends were shallow, that it was her. What she had experienced in Vietnam made it difficult for her to enjoy everyday life back home. She found solace writing poetry, and she connected with other Donut Dollies as well as military veterans. She attended and spoke at vets’ reunions, and she built a website where veterans could publish their stories and find one another.
The emotional toll that the Vietnam War took on the women the Red Cross, the U.S. military, and other organizations sent to Vietnam to care for American troops mentally, emotionally, and physically needs to be part of the broader conversation about the war and its long-term impacts. On the home front, the war had a profound effect on the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of veterans, as my friend Andrew Wiestis exploring in his research on the families of Charlie Company, his follow-up to The Boys of ’67. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the U.S. Army’s Vietnamese counterpart in the war, employed women in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) to minister to ARVN troops and their families as healthcare and social workers. Women of the National Liberation Front (NLF) tended to their men as nurses and doctors. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s posthumous memoir, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, offers a glimpse of the experiences of an NLF woman doctor, but we have so much more to learn about the war’s impact on Vietnamese women caregivers.
Emily never knew how influential she was in the development of my thinking about women and the Vietnam War and about what it means to experience war. She taught me about the emotional burden Donut Dollies bore while working to lift the spirits of men at war. Her stories pushed me to think about the various ways in which the Vietnam War affected women’s lives and what it meant to be a woman serving in the war. I am grateful to have spent some time with her, brief as it was. Rest in peace, Emily.
* Check out Emily’s website, http://www.emilydd.com, to see lots of photos from her time in Vietnam, read her poetry, and learn more about her work as a Donut Dollie and the men with whom she served. *
More on Stur
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in USM’s Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. Her first book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. She is currently writing two books: Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, and Reflecting America: U.S. Military Expansion and Global Interventions, forthcoming from Praeger/ABC-CLIO. She is also co-editor of the anthology, Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II ( Johns Hopkins University Press March 2017). In 2013-14, Dr. Stur was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She is the recipient of numerous other awards and fellowships from groups and institutions such as the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) program, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Stur teaches courses on U.S. foreign relations, women and war, the global Cold War, the U.S. since 1945, and world history. She is also the director of USM’s Vietnam Summer Studies Program, a three-week study abroad trip in which students are immersed in Vietnamese history, politics, and culture. Dr. Stur’s articles and editorials have been published in Diplomatic History, The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture, The National Interest, and Reflections on War &Society. She writes about foreign relations and military issues on her blog. Dr. Stur holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin.
Know any women veteran's who should tell their story? Contact us here