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Red Cross Workers Endured Hardships with Troops in Vietnam

This weekend the country is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict. The American Red Cross had staff in Vietnam supporting United States troops during the war, sharing the dangers of the conflict with the military personnel they were there to serve.

During the struggle in Southeast Asia, more than three million people lost their lives, including 58,000 Americans. At the peak of the United States’ participation in Vietnam, more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel were involved. Throughout the time Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) workers were in Vietnam, five Red Cross staff members lost their lives and many others were injured.

DONUT DOLLIES Perhaps the best known of the Red Cross staff in Vietnam were the Donut Dollies. At the request of military authorities, the Red Cross sent teams of young female college graduates to Vietnam beginning in 1965 to conduct light entertainment and audience participation programs for service personnel. They also served refreshments to the troops in traveling club mobiles. These Donut Dollies provided their services at stationary Red Cross recreational centers and traveled by helicopter, truck and jeep to bring a touch of home to troops in the field.

One of these brave young women was Susan Conklin, who at the age of 22 was seeking adventure after graduating from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism. Her year-long journey began when she landed in Saigon on the first day of the 1968 TET offensive and had to hunker down in a bunker in downtown Saigon. “Up until then there was not a lot of news about the war,” Conklin recalled. “I didn’t know much about it. I was inspired by a sense of adventure.”

Conklin’s service in Vietnam took her to Saigon, Cam Ranh Bay, Lai Khi and Da Nang. In Cam Rahn Bay, the Red Cross operated two recreation centers and the staff of 11 girls did mobile runs from there out to the “thunder zones” to bring entertainment and goodies to troops in the field. When she traveled to Lai Khe, mortar attacks had destroyed the Red Cross recreation center, so she spent time making mobile runs with fellow Donut Dollies out to the base camps. There she conducted games with small prizes for the soldiers and distributed ditty bags full of personal items like toothbrushes and razors for the troops.

“I was never afraid,” Conklin said. “I never knew much about the day-to-day status of the war, about what was going on where we were going.” During one trip, the Donut Dollies flew into a base camp to find the landing zone under fire. “We were hurried to a bunker. We finally got out on a med-evac chopper.” On another trip she went by helicopter to Quon Loi, a base camp near Cambodia. The area had been overrun by Viet Cong troops the night before and a general ordered the Red Cross out of the area on another chopper.

One of Conklin’s best memories is when the Bob Hope USO Tour came to the Red Cross recreation center in Da Nang. Red Cross staff helped stage the show and members of the 1st Marine Division attended. On Christmas Day, Susan and her fellow Donut Dollies traveled to the demilitarized zone to distribute goodies to the troops.

“I never smiled as much as I did while in Vietnam,” Conklin said. “The troops really appreciated what we did. I’m a ‘glass half full’ person, so I didn’t focus on the sad things. I still focus more on the faces I remember, the programs we did that made people happy. I went into the situation with a positive attitude. When you’re that young, you think you’re invincible.”

In the peak year of 1969, 110 young women operated 17 units in Vietnam, reaching an estimated 300,000 servicemen each month that year.

VIETNAM VET STILL HELPING MILITARY Forty-five years ago at the age of 21, Jose Colon-Rivera was drafted into the Army and deployed to 4th Infantry Division Camp Enari where he spent one year at Pleiku, Vietnam on a hilltop called Oasis. “The time in Vietnam was tense and uncertain,” he said. “It was very difficult not to think about your family and friends. But the Red Cross always came by to our location to talk and listen to our stories.”

Retired from the Army, Colon-Rivera joined the Red Cross in 2003 as a way to give back to the military community. Today he is a senior caseworker, providing emergency communications and financial assistance 24 hours a day, all around the world.

“It's a great privilege to assist and provide guidance to those in the military that need it, especially during times of uncertainty and despair. When you get a call from parent with some type of family emergency and you are able to help bring that soldier home, there is no greater satisfaction than when your hear them say ‘thank you Red Cross’. That makes my day.”

RED CROSS IN VIETNAM During the war, Red Cross assistance in Vietnam focused on three main areas – on military installations, in military and veterans’ hospitals, and supplemental recreational activities. Red Cross staff served on military installations throughout South Vietnam, providing helpwith personal and family problems, help in emergency situations and aid with communications to and from home. At its peak in 1969, the Red Cross operated 67 field stations in Vietnam staffed by more than 200 field personnel.

Troops in military hospitals received the same help from the Red Cross as those in the field, as well as access to recreational activities. The Red Cross also assisted the medical staff in care and treatment of the injured and collaborated with military authorities in developing drug-abuse treatment programs for addicted service personnel.

The majority of hospital activities occurred outside of Vietnam since most of the injured were evacuated as soon as possible to medical facilities in other parts of the Far East. In 1969, 60 Red Cross staff served at 20 hospitals and two hospital ships in Vietnam, while over 3,000 Red Cross staff and trained volunteers served in hospitals in Japan, the Philippines, Okinawa, Guam, Korea and Hawaii where the seriously ill and wounded were sent before being transported home.

During the years of American combat activity in the war, the Red Cross handled more than two million emergency communications between members of the military and their families. Red Cross field directors and chapter staff at home assisted an average of almost 29,000 troops each month with personal and family problems. An average of over 280,000 a month participated in recreation activities at Red Cross centers and in programs in Vietnam and neighboring countries.

HELP ON THE HOMEFRONT Back in the United States, Red Cross teams provided services on military installations and helped the ill and injured at military and veterans’ hospitals. Employees and volunteers at Red Cross chapters helped military families with emergency communications, counseling and help in applying for government benefits and emergency financial assistance. They saw future troops off at induction points, visited families of new recruits, organized military wives’ clubs, sponsored family nights, and recorded and sent thousands of “Voices from Home” tape recordings to those serving overseas.

The Red Cross offered two special programs to military personnel and their families during the war. One was a “Free Phone Call Home” to all injured military personnel on their return to the United States. The Red Cross funded more than 112,400 of the calls during the Vietnam conflict. As part of the “Shop Early” program, chapter volunteers assembled and sent special Christmas gift packets to every serviceman and woman in Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1972, more than 2,950,000 of these Yuletide packages were dispatched.

POW SUPPORT As prisoner exchanges began at the end of the war, North Vietnam accepted American Red Cross POW packets for men about to be released. Red Cross workers and volunteers participated in "Operation Homecoming," a special activity at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and at 31 domestic military hospitals, welcoming the POWs home and providing them with personal comfort items and recreational services.

The Red Cross also participated in the "Write Hanoi" campaign, sending more than 2,000 letters to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, Switzerland for delivery to North Vietnamese authorities. The letters requested intervention on behalf of captured and missing U.S. servicemen. The Red Cross also sent almost 20,000 letters from the families of prisoners for forwarding by the North Vietnamese to the POWs, and shipped food parcels intended for U.S. prisoners in North Vietnam.

SAF TODAY Red Cross SAF workers are present at military installations around the world, including in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djbouti. Through these military installations and the network of Red Cross chapters across the country, the Red Cross works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to relay emergency messages to deployed service members, including those in remove locations and on ships at sea.

Last year, the Red Cross provided more than 380,000 emergency assistance services to service members and their families and dispensed $4.7 million in emergency financial aid to nearly 3,500 individuals or families on behalf of military aid societies.

Members of the Armed Forces can count on the Red Cross to help in times of crisis, access to financial assistance in partnership with military aid societies, as well as programs for the country’s veterans. For more information, visit the Service to the Armed Forces program information on our web site.