Joann Puffer Kotcher. Donut Dolly: An American Red Cross Girl's War in Vietnam. North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2011. xviii + 361 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57441-324-3.
Reviewed by Nancy J. Traylor-Heard (Mississippi State University)
Published on H-War (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
A Donut Dolly’s Diary and Her Recollections of Vietnam
Donut Dolly: An American Red Cross Girl’s War in Vietnam is an intriguing account of Joann Puffer Kotcher’s experiences as a Red Cross worker (a Donut Dolly specifically), who planned recreation activities for troops in Vietnam from May 1966 to May 1967. When she arrived in Vietnam she followed her mother’s advice, “Keep a diary. You think you will remember, but you won’t” (p. ix). She recorded day-to-day events from her four assignments in the Central Highlands, Mekong Delta, South China Sea, and the Vietnam-Cambodian border. Kotcher provides a glimpse into the life of Red Cross women in Vietnam before the Tet Offensive of 1968 and attempts to dispel soldiers’ critiques of civilian females in Vietnam.
Kotcher divides her recollections into four parts: part 1 explores her arrival in Vietnam and her time in An Khe, part 2 examines her time in Dong Ba Thin, part 3 describes her experiences in Di An, and part 4 focuses on Bien Hoa and her return to America. From the beginning of her account, she provides historical context for the Donut Dollies and the Vietnam War. In her first chapter, “On My Way to the War,” she traces the origins of the Donut Dollies to the Civil War when women like Clarissa Barton cared for soldiers. Kotcher explains the importance of Donut Dollies as companions and recreational planners. During the Vietnam War, the Red Cross expected Donut Dollies to be “friendly, approachable, and above all professional” (p. 49). Kotcher was to remain in public and to never engage in a sexual relationship. In Dong Ba Thin, however, she began dating an officer, which became problematic. She explores the struggles that she faced as a young woman in Vietnam trying to date an officer. She could not express her affection and she had to remain professional.
In the chapter titled “Bien Hoa and the Voyage Home,” Kotcher describes the last leg of her year-long tour, her journey home, and her overall perceptions about the role of women in the military. Shortly before leaving Vietnam for her hometown in Michigan, a kitten bit her and she had to undergo fourteen rounds of rabies shots. Her treatment compromised her ability to plan recreation programs for soldiers, which devastated her since she was unable to fulfill her responsibilities. Upon her return home, Kotcher, like many soldiers, did not understand the youth’s ambivalence toward the conflict in Vietnam. She also believes that the Donut Dollies’ actions in Vietnam opened up more positions in the military for women, but she does not provide enough evidence to completely support this assertion.
One of Kotcher’s strongest contributions is her exploration of soldiers’ reactions to Donut Dollies. She highlights the various activities that she and other Dollies performed, from serving coffee and cake when soldiers arrived to visiting combat zones with snacks. They also planned various programs at Red Cross recreational centers. Kotcher notes that some soldiers viewed Dollies as an extra person to protect. She felt that newly arrived soldiers, in particular, were not as appreciative of the Donut Dollies and their services as seasoned soldiers. However, she also recorded numerous compliments in her diary and included letters and emails of thanks she received after the war. One Vietnam veteran claims that the Dollies provided the boost of morale that the soldiers needed. Kotcher offers ample examples of her duties and soldiers’ appreciation.
Donut Dolly is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in women serving during wartime. Scholars and graduate students alike would benefit from reading this book because it is a good example of an autobiography that provides insight into the life of a female civilian serving American troops during the Vietnam War. Kotcher corroborated servicemen’s and Donut Dollies’ stories that she recorded in her dairy with other primary sources. This book expands the state of the field beyond women on the home front or army nurses and is a good read alongside Heather Marie Stur’s Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (2012).
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Nancy J. Traylor-Heard. Review of Kotcher, Joann Puffer, Donut Dolly: An American Red Cross Girl's War in Vietnam.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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