In our 58th edition of the Donut Dollie Detail, Paula tells that when her fiancé was declared MIA in Vietnam it made her determined to learn more about the Vietnam War for herself, she recounts two very challenging moments of her time in-country and how her Donut Dollie service led to a 2 decade career with the Air Force.
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Please meet Red Cross Donut Dollie Paula Wright Haley…
What prompted you to join the SRAO (Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas) program and want to go to Vietnam?
I was engaged to a pilot who was flying over Vietnam and was shot down and was declared missing in action. I was heartbroken and could not understand why America was in this war and what we were doing there that would get our best and brightest killed. Was the sacrifice worth these young men’s lives?
I had discovered this relatively unknown Red Cross program called SRAO and became interested in going to Vietnam to have a better understanding of this horrible war. I was selected to go and I thought at the time it was an honor to be selected. Little did I know how stupid that really was and I don’t think anyone else had even applied… really who would want to go to a war zone in 1968?
When and where were you stationed in Vietnam? Did you go by a nickname?
My fist assignment was Chu Lai, my second assignment was Ahe Khe and the third place was Phan Rang. I arrived in September 1968 and left September 1969. The soldiers called me the Donut Dollie from Texas… so they usually called me Tex.
What was a routine day like in Vietnam?
It was get up very early, put on the skimpy uniform rush to the helicopter pad, jump in and go-go-go all day. Come back to base camp late, fall in bed and start over the next morning. In Chu Lai there was no recreation center, so every day it was out to wherever the soldiers might be. One time I was sitting next to a soldier in the helicopter and when he got out of the helicopter he walked into the back blade of the copter and his body flew in one direction and his arm went in another direction. I jumped out of the helicopter, ran over and picked up his arm and got on top of the soldier and was trying to put his arm back on him. By the time the soldier got to him they had to lift me off of him and I was covered in blood. To this day when I see a man without an arm I have to hold myself back from going up to that person and ask if it happened in Vietnam.
While in Ahe Khe, we split our time between the recreation center and going to the field. There was no set routine… we did whatever had to be done any given day.
Did you ever have any “close calls” either on base or in any vehicles?
I would say twice. One time we were out in the field with the soldiers when all of a sudden there was a battle. There was gunfire everywhere and I laid on the ground with a jacket over my head thinking that if we were overrun, this was my last day to live. After a while it got very quiet and no one spoke, but then there were a lot of men running around trying to take care of the wounded. A helicopter arrived and they put the wounded on the chopper. A second helicopter arrived and the other Donut Dollie and myself jumped on the chopper and we left. As soon as we were airborne, I realized I was sitting on top of dead men… VC that is! One of the soldiers on the chopper put his hand in the pocket of one of the dead men and pulled out a picture and he handed it to me. It was my moment of truth. I stared at the photo and it was a picture of a Vietnamese man, women and a child. It was the first time I realized that these people who were our enemy, were real people who had mothers and fathers and wives and children. Someone would be heartbroken by the death of this man, whom I was now sitting on top of!
Another time when I was in Ahe Khe, it appeared that the base camp would be over run. The base camp was built around a small mountain. The VC were running through the base camp to get to the wooded area of the mountain. We Donut Dollies were instructed to go to the small compound for cover. We had to run a distance. I can’t remember how far we had to run, but we didn’t make it and we hid in a ditch and it was raining. I remember laying in the ditch and I wasn’t even afraid. I was thinking “how in the world did I ever get here… I wonder what the folks back home would think if they saw me now!?!
Were you ever injured while in Vietnam?
What was it like to visit the soldiers in the hospitals?
I did not visit the hospital. I was never in a place where there was a hospital.
How was the transition returning home to the United States?
I remember coming home on a flight that had flight attendants. I remember looking at this flight attendant who was very clean, nice hair, nice red fingernails and for the first time I was totally aware of what I had missed in the real world. I then realized how I had spent a year without makeup, no fancy anything and I had forgotten what I used to be.
At first it was great seeing my family, but people really didn’t want to hear about Vietnam. I felt isolated and at times as crazy as it sounded I missed the soldiers, the high energy and the happiness and the sadness I felt while there. I wrote several articles about Vietnam and I called one article “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”. Vietnam changed me forever.
I am glad I had the experience but would never want to face another war like that again. I came back, got my master’s degree, joined the Air Force and became a military officer and served for 21 years and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Upon retirement, I was the director of the Los Angeles National cemetery for several years. The more I have studied the Vietnam War and have a better understanding of how and why we were there… it makes me very sad. I went back to Vietnam last year and I wish I had never gone back. It was too sad to think about the horrible things that happen in that small county.
What would you like people to remember and understand most about the women who served?
I know this sounds rather dumb, but the Donut Dollies were not nurses. While I was in Vietnam I never set foot in a hospital. I have this friend who introduces me as a nurse who served in Vietnam and every time I correct him. It is so stereotyping to say any woman who was in Vietnam must have been a nurse. There were women who were line officers in the military, women who served with the USO, etc. Not every women who was in Vietnam was a nurse. I take my hat off to the nurses, but that wasn’t who we were while in Vietnam.
How do you feel Veterans think of your time having served with them? Have any Veterans expressed their feelings to you directly?
The soldiers whom we came in contact with still love us to this day. The real grunts in the field remember us and that’s all that counts.
What are your fondest or most interesting memories of your time serving in Vietnam?
My very favorite memory was Christmas Day 1968. We boarded a helicopter very early that morning and we flew to every area possible giving the soldiers bags of goodies, which were donated by the American people. It made me feel good that the people back home cared enough to make sure the soldiers were remembered and how happy the soldiers were to see us and to know the people back home cared. I don’t ever remember being that tired in my life, but even today it can bring a tear to my eyes to think back on that day. The song which was played over and over again was “I’ll be Home for Christmas”.
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