In our 59th edition of the Donut Dollie Detail, Diane tells how her upbringing and need to serve others influenced her signing up to go to Vietnam; how serving the men on base, in the field and children in need all were the focus of her service, and how she met her husband of 43-years in Vietnam and in a funny twist of events, married him twice in 1968.
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Please meet Red Cross Donut Dollie Diane Diggs Byrd…
What prompted you to join the SRAO (Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas) program and want to go to Vietnam?
I would say that the main reason for my joining the Red Cross Donut Dollies program was because of the experiences I had growing up, based on my family’s focus on church activities, caring for those in our community and appreciating everyone of all races. At the time of my birth, the only options for race listed on the birth certificate were either white or black, but my family background was Native American. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was from the Meherrin tribe and my grandfather was Cherokee, and while on my father’s side, his background is Native American, but we need to research this further. When my mother and father married, the atmosphere surrounding race became a choice for my family, my Mama’s family chose to live with caucasians, while my mother and father decide to live in black society in Norfolk, VA. I went to an all-black high school and the building was in need of replacement, so when Martin Luther King Jr. heard of our plight, he organized a march asking the city to build a new high school for the black students. When MLK’s organizers came for the march, they told us that we could be arrested… but we still marched. Unfortunately, it took 10 years following my graduation for the new high school to be built.
Through these experiences I chose to do something positive with my life and to make a difference. I began by volunteering with the Red Cross in high school, which began my 30 years of service with them. My plan was to use my medical studies to work as a medical missionary, when I decided to join the Red Cross to serve my country, and was then assigned to Vietnam through the SRAO program. The trip from the U.S. to Saigon was quite an experience, because up to that time, I had never been on a plane with only men on it. Plus, they all were smoking and that wasn’t something I was used to. Another thing I hadn’t experienced before was in the airport and on the plane, the men showed their enthusiasm at seeing me and my Donut Dollie sisters, it was quite a reaction.
When and where were you stationed in Vietnam? Did you go by a nickname?
I was stationed with the II Field Force in Long Bien from early July to December, 1968. I flew to Vietnam on July 4th. There were 12 ladies in our unit. I went by the name Diane.
What was a routine day like in Vietnam?
A routine day at the beginning of my tour started with our programming on the base. We designed our programs to stimulate the mind of the service members to recall basic facts on a subject using questions and visuals in a game format. I usually designed my programs using science facts, because my degree was in Pre Med Biology. I also liked to use questions from botany and other scientific areas. At first we were doing our programs in the recreation center on base, but when the USO came in, our center was closed down. We then became a Clubmobile unit, taking our programs out to the men in the field.
Our programs were designed like quiz shows, like those that the service members would remember from TV or challenges that I would develop. The programs were designed to be fun and challenging, and when we divided the service members into teams that made them more competitive. Two Donut Dollies would travel together each day to their assigned units in a jeep, helicopter, MPC’s or other form of military transport. We spent the day programming, visiting units, sometimes visiting places where children were living who needed help. The service members in these units would often provide food for the children.
Did you ever have any “close calls” either on base or in any vehicles?
Were you ever injured while in Vietnam?
What was it like to visit the soldiers in the hospitals?
I enjoyed visiting service members in the hospitals and their units. It seemed to bring joy to them just to see we cared enough to come. I received many letters from the men stating that just seeing me made them think of home and that talking with them brought back good memories.
How was the transition returning home to the United States?
My transition returning home was different from many of the Donut Dollies, because I was married to a service member and my life was with service members and their families on a full-time basis. I was working with new military wives getting them adjusted to military life with their deployed husbands, still visiting hospitals, and creating programs for the military wives clubs. My husband and I were stationed first at Fort Lee, Virginia, where I worked with the Red Cross in the hospital. At every point of our deployment, the experiences I had in Vietnam were helpful.
What would you like people to remember and understand most about the women who served?
The Donut Dollies were dedicated to serving our country and the men who served. For myself, I served with the Red Cross following my time as a Donut Dollie in Vietnam in many locations during the time of my husband’s military service. Through my work with the Red Cross and the military, the focus of my service was to military families, as an instructor of international law, serving the diverse community and through disaster services, providing disaster training for children in the community and many other areas of Red Cross service.
How do you feel Veterans think of your time having served with them? Have any Veterans expressed their feelings to you directly?
My husband Mel served for 32-years active duty and attained the rank of Brigadier General. During this time I became very active in military life, supporting the wives and families of the deployed men, and regularly interacting with them in casual and formal settings. Respect for those who served has always been present around me. I love my country and I feel that the experiences I had serving in Vietnam made me stronger and deepened my dedication to service.
What are your fondest or most interesting memories of your time serving in Vietnam?
One of memories from Vietnam that led to the most impact on my life, were my early days at II Field Force, when a line of Jeeps came rolling up to us Donut Dollies. The leader of this “convoy” was Kelly, a man I knew from Morgan State College back in the states. As the men were showing their interest in us, he called out to all of them, saying something funny like “I know this young lady… so everybody just turn around”. Shortly after this, I got a brief note from one of those men, saying he was temporarily in another area, but that when he got back he hoped he could meet with me. And that’s how I met Mel, my husband of 43-years. During the time we were both in-country, we had very little time to date, which was frowned upon by the Red Cross, so our relationship grew through late night phone calls, letters and brief times when we were both in the same place at the same time.
Another memory regarding Mel, is that we married twice, which is a funny story. We had both taken R&R in Hong Kong during our tours in 1968 and we got married. From the time we became engaged and then married, I had to hide my rings and I didn’t inform the Red Cross, but Mel had to inform his superiors. Shortly after getting married I saw in a movie about a couple who got married overseas and then they learned it wasn’t official. Of course, the possibility of this happening to us was concerning. So once I completed my tour, Mel took R&R in the states and as soon as the plane landed, we were married again in New York.
My fondest memories in Vietnam are of the women with whom I served and the joy on the faces of the service members when they saw we cared enough to come. I often remember my Donut Dollie partner Ramona jumping out of the helicopter after a day of service into a mud puddle. I also remember the day that the canvas tops were ordered off the Jeeps during the rainy season and we came back really wet every day.
Another memory I have is of the day I went to a unit I visited on a regular basis. I had fond memories of visiting with these men and talking to them about home and their families. One day we went back to program and their living quarters were empty, although the pictures of their family members were still hanging and other items they cherished were still there. I asked where they were and I was told they were all gone. They have been killed while in a convoy. I still have that picture of them in my head and their treasured pictures still hanging in their living quarters! I still feel the pain I know their families felt. I know they died for our country – they were so young.
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