Focal Point: Playing games in a war zone

Published on Wednesday, 7 May 2014 00:06 - Written by Dave Berry, dvberry@tylerpaper.com

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Rabindranath Tagore

 

 

Jennifer Young proudly wears the moniker “Donut Dollie.”

She readily admits the Red Cross doesn’t like the term, considering it demeaning to women. But the Tyler woman believes it aptly describes a time in her life that — much like the experiences of hundreds of thousands of military veterans of the Vietnam War — shaped her life forever.

In a recent “Open Mic” talk to residents of Tyler’s Meadow Lake Senior Living Community, Young shared stories about that time 44 years earlier when she was known as “Donut Dollie Jenny.”

Her experience in Southeast Asia was unique, shared by only 620 other women, all volunteers, who went to war as part of a Red Cross recreational program called SRAO (Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas).

For a year spanning 1968-69 — one of the war’s deadliest, most dangerous periods — her job was to raise morale among the troops.

During the year she served, there were only about 100 other women in the program, all single, college graduates, ages 21 to 26, a diverse group from all across the United States.

After a quick two weeks of training, they went to Vietnam, scattered from the Delta to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).

“We lived in small groups,” she said, “women whose job it was to fly up to the forward areas and play games.”

On larger bases and posts, some SRAO volunteers ran recreation centers, where men could play pingpong, pool, cards, or take part in special events.

“We served coffee in motor pools and at night climbed into the guard towers to serve coffee to the sentries,” she said. “Often, we came to the LZ on the same chopper with the day’s hot meal. So, we often served chow before the program.”

Dressed in light blue dresses that contrasted dramatically to the muddy green world of the average soldier, they dropped from the sky to visit remote outposts and engage clusters of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in group participation games and activities.

Often in pairs, they alighted from Hueys, Chinooks or light observation helicopters, lugging heavy canvass bags filled with gifts and audience participation games they made themselves. Patterned after TV game shows such as Concentration, the Price is Right or board games like Clue or Monopoly, the games were often made of poster board, flash cards, rubber bands, string, muffin tins and ping pong balls.

Then, using a tank or bunker as a backdrop, the SRAO teams engaged the men in a group activity for a few minutes to take their minds off the war. Before returning to home base, they would distribute gifts — candy, candles, card decks, paperbacks, small mirrors and packets of Kool Aid, “lots of Kool Aid,” she said. “If our bag was depleted by the end of the day, we were content.”

Young said the SRAO volunteers in Vietnam didn’t actually serve doughnuts — like Red Cross workers who dished up warm smiles and steaming meals in World War II canteens and hot coffee and sugary doughnuts in the frozen hills of Korea.

“But the men called us Donut Dollies,” she said, “and we learned to answer to it.”

“They (the Red Cross) said, ‘Always play your game when you go to a firebase or LZ (landing zone). Don’t just chitchat.” Young said. “I always remembered that.”

The last five months of Young’s tour was spent in and around Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Toward the end of her tour, she went out regularly with units of the 4th Infantry Division. The nearby Landing Zone St. George, a small hilltop outpost manned by 80 men, was a regular stop.

On Nov. 7, 1969, as she and another SRAO team member were arranging transport for LZ St. George, they were told they couldn’t go. The post had been nearly overrun the day before by North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong, a force that outnumbered the Americans 10 to one. Half the defenders were casualties; nine dead and 31 wounded.

“If you want to see the guys from St. George, you will have to go to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku,” she was told.

She remembers the sadness and heartbreak of seeing men she knew, men she had laughed with, men she had entertained with “our silly games” shot up, bandaged up and hurting.

“But we had to be upbeat,” she said, “forcing a smile while digging my fingernails into my palms to keep from crying.”

That day was her lowest point … “an abrupt reality check,” she said Friday from Phoenix, where she attended a reunion of Red Cross wartime volunteers — from World War II to Afghanistan.

She prefers to remember the high points … the smiles, the laughs, a sparkle in eyes that had moments before been locked in what veterans call the “1,000-yard stare.” She cherishes the letters received from “guys who made it home and wrote to say ‘thank you.’ Those mean a lot,” she said.

This column can be my thank you letter. Welcome home, Jenny. Thanks for being there with us.

I only remember meeting a single Donut Dollie in Vietnam. No, it wasn’t Jennifer; she was long gone before I arrived. This young woman managed the rec center at Long Binh, and I was looking for a tape recorder — something to play that letter from home my folks had recorded on a cassette tape.

I don’t remember her name. I couldn’t tell you much about her face, her figure or the sound of her voice. But she helped me, welcomed me in and poured a glass of Kool Aid … and for a few hours at least, she made the war go away.

What I recall today, what I remember most, was her smile.

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Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section. Next week? Well, we’ll just let it be a surprise.