This post is by Terrin Lettieri Haley.
I served as a Red Cross “Doughnut Dolly” in Vietnam from 1968 -1969. “Doughnut Dollies” was the affectionate name given to American Red Cross Recreational Workers, dating back to World War I and continuing during Vietnam. We were responsible for bringing a “touch of home” to men serving in combat zones.
The events described in this story (named after a beloved Red Cross colleague, Liz West) occurred somewhere in III or IV Corps—the lower half of what was The Republic of South Vietnam where I worked with the 9th Infantry, the 25th Infantry, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and the 1st Cav.
The passage of time has eroded the details but not the impact or essence of my experiences as a Doughnut Dolly. I continue to struggle with the issue of where I did or did not contribute to the war effort.
Gabby wakes up as the Vietnamese dawn seeps through the planks of the hooch [dwelling]. She grabs her Red Cross uniform, slips it on, shoves sneakers on, brushes and braids her hair. Five minutes in the wash house, coffee and a piece of toast in the mess tent, salt tablets. Ready for work. She and her partner, Polly, grab their gear bag and head to the helicopter pad. Today they are going to LZ Liz.
Gabby and Polly clamber aboard their assigned chopper. Gabby sits next to one of the door gunners. He has bitten his fingernails until they bled. His eyes have black circles of exhaustion beneath them and the whites are the color of cigarette stains. Probably nineteen, he looks fifty. He grins because he is sitting next to a Round-Eyes-from-Back-in-the-World. They could be on a date, Gabby thinks, at Playland waiting for the Dragon Coaster to start. A date, if he were not holding a machine gun, if he did not have a bandolier slung around his neck.
The rotor blades thump overhead and the whine of the turbine engine pierces the air. The blades turn slowly, accelerate, and they are airborne. As the Huey clears the compound, Gabby spots five water buffaloes–one with a little boy on its back–at the edge of the base camp. Suddenly the chopper banks to the left, the buffaloes disappear, and her heart squeezes in sudden joy.
Fifteen minutes into the flight the gunner points ahead and says something Gabby can’t hear but she nods like she understands. Suddenly he throws out an arm and pushes her back. Suddenly he is firing the machine gun and she realizes someone is shooting at them. The sound of the weapon, the dodging of the aircraft, the adrenaline rush, the mix of wind, and the unnerving noise of the rotor blades assault her. She feels scared inside, yet excited on the outside. Her mind freezes over the scared and excited sensations because they do not match.
The staccato bursts suddenly cease as LZ Liz appears below. A big oval of cleared jungle. They land. Gabby steps out on a strut and hops to the ground. Polly hands down their gear bag. The helicopter crew lifts up again, churning up clouds of dust and grit. It will return for the girls several hours later. The racket fades away.
LZ Liz is unusually silent. Gabby hears no “Iron Butterfly” competing with Johnny Cash. No rebel yells.
Stranger is the fact that no one has met them. Usually half a dozen soldiers would greet them. They would scuffle to carry the gear bag. Someone would be waving a picture of his new son for Gabby or Polly to see. The men would be happy because the Doughnut Dollies, the only females in their immediate world, were visiting. The Doughnut Dollies ask them their first names and listen to stories about their old ladies, their hunting dogs, their Harleys, Corvettes, sound systems, and hometowns. Their listening is powerful magic that reminds the men of who they once were. And this listening comes with pony tails and ribbons, a smell of soap and powder, bare legs, and the usual girl body parts, smiles, chatter. A reminder of MomSisterGirlfriend.
Gabby and Polly look around and see a couple of men emptying honey pots, someone else cleaning a rifle, but, really, LZ Liz seems deserted. Is there a scheduling screw-up? Are all the platoons out on patrol? Both the sun and the silence are too big. Gabby begins to gleam with sweat. It has to be at least 100 degrees.
The girls grab the gear bag and walk toward the mess tent. Maybe the division chaplain is conducting a field memorial service–the combat boots standing empty, the mournful sound of taps, everyone saluting their buddy, crying without shame.
Something bad has happened, Gabby is suddenly certain. Who is KIA? MIA? Who died on the MEDEVAC en route to Saigon? Gabby knows many of the old-timers at LZ Liz. She says a quick prayer to no one and everyone. Don’t let it be Smokey from East St. Louis. Don’t let it be Robbie from Compton. Don’t let it be the guy from Omaha who wrote me the Christmas poem.
Gabby and Polly pass the mess tent and then see off toward the perimeter to their left a tight swarm of men. They drop the gear bag and head that way.
Three dozen men are in a circle. No one talks, but Gabby hears disturbing mumbles, curses, and grunts. The men are restless, shifting their weight from foot to foot and thrusting forward like dogs facing off. Over someone’s shoulder Gabby sees a guy from Texas wiping his hands down his thighs. She and Polly wedge between two men and are now part of the circle. The men take no notice. All eyes are focused inward.
Two women, apparently prisoners, are in the center. One is pretty, maybe twenty, the other a gnarled elderly woman. They wear silky black pajamas and have the strong arms, bare feet, and dark faces of the rice farmer. Both appear terrified. Rope cobbles their feet. The old woman has one knee and one hand on the ground and is trying to pull herself up by grabbing onto the young woman. She is babbling, or praying, or moaning. The young woman stands trembling violently. She extends a hand to her companion.
Polly quietly questions the G.I. next to her.
He replies, “Last night. Sappers. Slipped under the wire. Blew up two bunkers. Killed four guys.”
Gabby listens and asks, “Who?”
“Rodriguez, DiNardo, Klancnik, Fallacci. Christ, they fucking killed Fallacci.” He strangles a sob and looks at the two Vietnamese women. “Fucking gooks!” he yells. Gabby remembers Fallacci. He had shared with her the homemade sausage his nona had sent from Queens.
The old woman crams a bony fist in her mouth. The young woman wraps her arms around herself. Gabby imagines them screaming. She believes she can smell their fear. The men growl a little louder, shift more restlessly. Gabby suddenly recalls a bull she once saw, its enormous genitals hanging low, pawing the ground. She knows that just one soldier needs to explode and savagery will rain down on these women with dirt and snot and sweaty strands of hair plastered on their faces.
Gabby wants to scream, turn and run. But she also wants to stay and go wrap her arms around the women. She is paralyzed and her teeth start to clatter. Suddenly she grips Polly’s arm, hard, and yells without any thought, “No!” and then Polly yells, much louder than Gabby, “No! No! No!”
The men are surprised, shaken, and seem to step back an inch or so. Their reaction is a sudden release. It is as if a mirror has shattered, one minute a perfect reflection, the next a collection of shards.
Suddenly a lieutenant appears. “What the hell’s going on here?” he demands. The older woman prostrates herself, forehead to ground. “Caught these two just beyond the tree line,” LT, the soldier who is holding the ropes that shackle the women, yells back. “Claim they were looking for some gook fruit.” Roughly, he slaps the younger woman on her back. She begins to speak rapidly, drops to her knees and tears open her shirt, exposing swollen breasts. She makes a cradling motion with her arms.
The group of men is frozen, looking from the two women, now both on the ground, to the lieutenant on the edge of the circle. Gabby sees confusion, doubt, and shame flicker across his young face. “Alright. Soldier, untie them, get ‘em outta here. Tell ‘em not to come near the LZ again. And get her dressed for Christ’s sake.” He looks around the circle and is startled to see Gabby and Polly. “O.K., it’s over,” he says. “Move out. Get back to work.”
In a moment the women are through a break in the perimeter. They trip, stumble, and look back to see if the soldiers are following. They begin to run.
Gabby and Polly retrieve the gear bag and go to the mess tent. The LZ commander comes in. He tells the girls their pick-up will be early; it’s not a good day for their usual Red Cross program. They wait an hour, Gabby curled into herself. Polly rubs her back. She rubs Polly’s arm. Finally their helicopter returns.
Gabby sits next to the same door gunner. She rests her head on his shoulder and sits as close as she can. Let him be the magic. Let him make this day end. He keeps looking at her and then toward the front of the chopper. Gabby imagines the co-pilot making some kind of “Yeah!” guy signal. She closes her eyes. The door gunner’s shoulder is warm and his arm is strong. She imagines he smiles all the way back to Tay Ninh.
Terrin Haley has enjoyed a series of careers in law, journalism, psychology, and human services. In her current incarnation she is a psychotherapist and writer, living on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, from where she monitors her three adult children around the globe. It was her great life-changing privilege to work with American and Australian G.I.’s in Vietnam.