In our twenty seventh edition of the Donut Dollie Detail, Karel tells how she joined the Donut Dollie program to help make things a little better for the soldiers in Vietnam, that she was at Cam Ranh base during some dangerous situations, and how kind and chivalrous the soldiers were to the Donut Dollies.
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Please meet Red Cross Donut Dollie Karel Dierks Robertson…
The short answer: To do something to make life a little bit better for all the soldiers serving in Vietnam.
The longer answer: As a nursing student at San Diego State I had cared for young men, my age or only slightly older, who had been catastrophically injured. I also had a lot of friends who had served with the Army in Vietnam and returned bitter about the “lost year” of their lives spent in country. Along with this influence was the general disillusionment that was taking hold in the U.S. I was working in NYC as a nurse the day it was announced that bombing raids had begun on Cambodia. I could only think about how much longer we would be at war in a part of the world that I knew so little about and how many more young men would be drafted during that time. During a discussion with a friend, I expressed a desire to do something for the soldiers, but not as a military nurse. She told me about a friend of hers who had been a Donut Dollie. I also wanted to see the country that was tearing my country apart, or so it seemed at the time.
When and where were you stationed in Vietnam? Did you go by a nickname?
I served at Camp Eagle from August – October, 1971, at Cam Ranh Air Base (CRAB) from October 1971 – late March, 1972, and then TDY (temporary duty) at Bien Hoa for 2 weeks in mid-March. I returned to CRAB for at least a week after being at Bien Hoa to help pack up and close the centers and then went to Saigon to await DEROS (Date Estimated Return From Overseas) and a flight back to “the world”. There were several of us and we waited a few days before we could get a flight out. Some of us were planning to stop in Japan to travel a bit before resuming our trip home to California.
I did assume a nickname after Carol Clark arrived at Camp Eagle as the new Unit Director. After a couple of weeks it became too confusing to have two people with similar sounding names in one place. I dropped the “r” and the “l” and became Kae. That followed me to CRAB — sort of. I used both my given name and my nickname there. Mostly because I had a name tag with “Kae.”
What was a routine day like in Vietnam?
At Camp Eagle the days were generally spent programming at various firebases. We usually went to at least two each day we went out into the field. The plan was set by the program director for the week, as I recall, but we had to check each morning to be sure it was safe enough for us to visit that day. Transportation was by Huey. Saturdays was usually spent programming on the base and trying out new programs. Once a week two of us would go to Camp Evans for the day, programming to various units there and end the day doing a “show” for the newest arrivals. I never knew what they were told was going to happen before they were marched into the little amphitheater, but the looks on the soldier’s faces was always surprise and delight.
At Cam Ranh AFB we did have a mobile component to our work, but mostly we ran two recreation centers on the base. We rotated shifts and locations. Our day off rotated also because the centers operated seven days a week. The trips to the highlands were every few weeks, as I remember. I don’t think a team was sent every week. We spent at least one night at a MACV villa, sometimes two nights. For that trip, we were flown up in a Caribou and then traveled by jeep or truck to engineering camps, mainly.
Did you ever have any “close calls” either on base or in any vehicles?
There was one day on a firebase that required the two of us being hustled into the underground command center while a call was sent out for a helicopter to come get us. They finally got a big Chinook to come for us.
At Cam Ranh there were some periods when we had to close the rec center on the far side of the base due to alerts that “sappers” had come through the wire. The term sappers was used to described Vietnamese (probably local Viet Cong) who were skilled at demolition or firing crude rockets.. Their goal was to set off explosions inside the perimeter of the base — as I understood it.
And, shortly before the base was completely closed, there was a rocket attack one night that hit the hangers near the compound that housed the Donut Dollies. No one was injured, but everyone who felt like a short-timer was rattled, myself included.
Were you ever injured while in Vietnam?
That was not a regular part of my experience. There was still a small medical facility at Cam Ranh AFB and most of the patients were not as catastrophically injured as they probably had been a few years earlier (I was in Vietnam 1971 – 1972). There were probably more patients suffering some sort of stress/PTSD. I did go once to a locked facility for drug abuse while I was stationed at Camp Eagle. It was run by the Marines.
How was the transition returning home to the United States?
Not terrible, but a little rocky. I returned to my job as an ICU nurse where I had been working before going to Vietnam. Oddly, I did occasionally have moments of panic/anxiety related to explosive sounds and helicopters that lasted for several years. It was never incapacitating and eventually faded over the course of about five or six years.
We were sincerely interested in making life better for the young soldiers who were serving in country, no matter what our political view of the war while there or after our time in country.
How do you feel Veterans think of your time having served with them? Have any Veterans expressed their feelings to you directly?
I assume that most veterans have a positive impression of the work the Donut Dollies did. No, I have not had any interaction with any Vietnam veterans who encountered Donut Dollies during their service.
What are your fondest or most interesting memories of your time serving in Vietnam?
Flying over the tree tops in a helicopter
The soldiers at Camp Evans when they saw us
How truly kind and chivalrous so many soldiers were to us — offering the last can of Coke on a hot afternoon; trying to quiet the more obstreperous members of a group when we were programming; always being willing to help with any task we ever requested assistance with; etc.
A visit to an orphanage with a medical team — not exactly a “fondest memory” but definitely a deeply moving memory
As incongruous as it may seem, the fun I had during the time I was in country — the camaraderie with other Donut Dollies and with the soldiers and airmen.
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