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One-time ‘Donut Dolly’ Has a Lasting Red Cross Connection

Debby MacSwain is nothing if not humble. “Let me tell you who you should really do a story on,” she said. From those words, you would never guess that she has 44 years of American Red Cross service under her belt.

MacSwain’s connection to the Red Cross began in earnest in 1969 when she became a “Donut Dolly”—one of hundreds of women who ran recreation programs for troops in Vietnam.

The name “Donut Dolly” originated in World War II, when the women would prepare and serve donuts to the troops. The name stuck, although they did not serve the sweets in Vietnam. Shortly after MacSwain arrived there, she visited an Army post and saw a sergeant making donuts. “And that was the last donut I saw in Vietnam!” MacSwain said.

Women who wanted to serve as a Donut Dolly had to be single, at least 21 years old and have a college degree. MacSwain had just graduated college and was taking a water safety instructor class when the trainer told her about the Red Cross program overseas. It seemed right up her alley, given her degree in recreation, physical education and fine arts.

MacSwain left for Vietnam in January 1969 and stayed for a year. That year had a profound effect on her. “It was the greatest, most important experience of my life,” she said. “Every emotion that a person can have, we experienced every day.”

The year was filled with both good times and tragic moments. Near the end of her time in Vietnam, a woman in the same unit as MacSwain was killed in a jeep accident. That woman’s name, along with four other Red Cross workers who died in Vietnam, is etched on a plaque at Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

One of the more lighthearted moments came during the holiday season. A week before Christmas, MacSwain and another team member flew to an Army post and decorated the mess hall, including a Christmas tree. When they returned on Christmas Day, they walked into the mess hall and were greeted by the soldiers—all dressed in civilian clothes, standing and applauding. “Nothing made me feel better than that,” MacSwain said.

After returning from Vietnam, MacSwain held a variety of jobs over the years, some of which were with the Red Cross. But no matter where she worked, she always maintained a connection with the organization, including volunteering as a Red Cross swimming instructor.

Today, she not only serves on the board of directors at the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Red Cross in Colorado Springs, but she also teaches swimming to special needs children at Fort Carson, Colo. Two of her students, Ian Keesecker, 8, and Sidney Trapman, 11, have autism, and MacSwain has worked with them for years.

“They’ve brought me so much joy, and their families too,” MacSwain said. Ian’s father recently returned from Afghanistan, and Sidney’s is currently serving in Iraq.

MacSwain is also co-chairing a legacy project for the Red Cross called “Service to the Armed Forces: Our Legacy Continues.” The project aims to document, honor and recognize the service of Red Cross staff who have supported U.S. military members serving on combat, peacekeeping, peace-making, and humanitarian missions.

Although she is more apt to highlight the work of others, there is no doubt that MacSwain’s own service is part of that legacy, and will go down in Red Cross history.