In our sixth edition of the Donut Dollie Detail, Cecelia “Betty” Burgess Grandison tells about serving in Vietnam, her experiences meeting veterans, and about the time she was issued a gas mask to wear when the US force sprayed “tear gas”.
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Please meet Red Cross Donut Dollie Cecelia “Betty” Burgess Grandison…
I was a senior in college at the University of Georgia. I discovered this opportunity through my placement office. I was not sure if the war was right or wrong, but I knew that my male classmates would have to go. I wanted to go to offer a service to them, to find out more about the war, and, yes, for the excitement.
When and where were you stationed in Vietnam? Did you go by a nickname?
In 1968 I served in Phu Loi with the 1st Infantry Division—the Big Red One. I was known as Betty.
There were 2 typical days. One was when we stayed on the base camp to plan programs and to relax a bit. The other was flying by helicopter to the base camps or staying at Phu Loi to present interactive recreation programs. These lasted around 45 minutes after which we would visit a few minutes with the men. Then we moved on to the next group of men. Sometimes we spent the day at a grave yard where a base camp was located, sometimes we went to a base camps at Quan Loi where rubber trees grew, Di An, and Song Be (very near Cambodia).
Did you ever have any “close calls” either on base or in any vehicles?
Not that I knew. There were times when we heard incoming fire at night. There was a time where we landed in the mud at Song Be to present one of our programs. While we were there, we witnessed fire from artillery and gunships and one rocket was fired. Once at the above-mentioned grave yard we were given gas masks and told that the US forces were going to be spraying “tear gas”. I became quite ill with acute ulcerative colitis a few days later and wondered if it had anything to do with the “tear gas”. Later when the effects of Agent Orange became known, I wondered if they were spraying Agent Orange. Why would they be spraying ‘tear gas” on our own camp?
Were you ever injured while in Vietnam?
No, but I did get quite ill as I mentioned above. I was in the hospital at Long Binh for 3 weeks before I was sent back home to Fort Gordon in Georgia by way of Japan and Andrews Air Force Base.
What was it like to visit the soldiers in the hospitals?
I visited hospitals twice in my short month. I really preferred this. I believe this experience may have added to my interest in working in health care. I later became a social worker with veterans who were in or affiliated with VA hospitals.
Of course, I experienced the hospital from the patient side. I was there when a young boy died of lock jaw, unheard of in the US. I was the only woman in the hospital, which presented challenges of privacy in a field hospital like the one in Long Binh. I am convinced that I almost died there, but I feel that the care was good. It was truly a life-changing experience. It took away the youthful notion that I was invincible. Later, when I worked with patients, I knew what it was like to be on the patient side of the relationship.
How was the transition returning home to the United States?
Because I returned to the US on a medical flight, I thought that my experience was unique. I had thought that the other Donut Dollies had returned home as a group in the same way that we travelled there, that once at home there was a debriefing. Of course, that was not true. I experienced my return in isolation. There was no recognition and I don’t remember it being discussed. After my recuperation, I found a job working in the local “welfare” office for 2 years. After that, I accepted a position with the Albany VA Hospital. I worked there for 7 years. Later, I moved to NYC where, again, I worked at the VAMC in the Bronx and then Manhattan. For years, I served on a committee to plan an annual seminar, “Still Hidden Client”, for veterans, families, and people who worked with veterans.
That we served. That we are veterans of Vietnam as much as any member of the armed services, but we were not armed. We suffered the same treatment and emotional problems as any member of the armed services.
How do you feel Veterans think of your time having served with them? Have any Veterans expressed their feelings to you directly?
I know that the veterans valued my work. I had no idea until I went to the annual Memorial Day parade in Washington in 1984. I wore my uniform. I had men tell me how much it had meant that we were there. Again, in 1993, my 67-year-old husband proudly pushed me in a wheelchair (I with a broken kneecap and he recovering from wrist surgery). This was so that I could “march” in the Veteran’s Day Parade, which was in our honour and when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. There were so many signs and well-wishers along the way saying, “Welcome Home”. One man said that he had come to many Veteran’s’ Day parades since he had returned from Vietnam, but this was the first when it had not rained. He felt it was because we were finally included. He said it was the first time that “The Wall” had not cried. That brings to tears to my eyes to this day.
What were your fondest or most interesting memories of your time serving in Vietnam?
While I was in hospital, I was on a liquid diet. I could not eat most of soups offered by the hospital. I made this known to a hospital based Red Cross worker who every night after she had worked all day brought me chicken noodle soup in a thermos. I did not know her name and had no way to write a thank you after I came home. During the weekend reunion of Donut Dollies in DC in 1993, I sought her and asked about her all the time we were there with no success. When my husband and I were leaving the city by Metro, we missed one train. As we were waiting for the next 2 women appeared on the platform, one pushing another one in a wheelchair. I made one last desperate attempt by asking if either of them had been stationed at the Long Binh hospital in August 1968. The one in the wheelchair said that she was. She did not remember her kindness, but she said that it was the kind of thing that she would have done. I cried all the way to our destination. It still brings tears to my eyes. Her name was Barbara Lee Gilbert. We kept in contact until her death in 2001.
The excitement of riding in helicopters. The experience of being so far around the world and the anticipation of adventures in store as the year progressed. It was such a short stay that the illness is the overriding memory of being there. It had the biggest impact.
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