The Girls Next Door by Kara Dixon Vuic

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Most works of history can be placed in one of two categories: they either provide context to a specific era or topic or they present an argument based on a historic question. Kara Dixon Vuic’s The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $29.95) is in the former category. The book examines—and provides a comprehensive history of—the topic of women’s work in military entertainment from World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book is a largely anecdotal and accessible history. Its ninety pages of end notes evince its comprehensive research. Vuic is a rofessor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University and the author of the award-winning Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War.

During the first two world wars and through the Korean War, prominent agencies including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and USO recruited college-educated, attractive, adventurous, and “middle-American wholesome” female volunteers. In coordination with the military, the women were deployed overseas to manage canteens, play games, and provide a familial reminder to bolster morale and commitment. The women were symbols of domestic Americana.

During the Cold War—and particularly during the Vietnam War—the Army’s Special Services was the leading provider of these programs, most notably through the Red Cross’ Donut Dolly program. With the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War as more women joined the armed forces through the 1980s, the programs appropriately shifted to serve families.

In documenting the history of women in military entertainment, Vuic also traces “the evolution of wartime gender ideologies and connects women’s work for the military to “their changing place in the nation.” This is underscored in the war in Vietnam, where the splintering of American culture was particularly evident.

In Vietnam, the intrinsic tension in the role of the women between conventional purity and sexual desire was exposed. The military used both the wholesomeness of the Donut Dollies and provocative USO shows to try to maintain esprit de corps. The title of the book and the cover photograph of a Donut Dolly in Da Nang illustrate the popular Vietnam War-era Playboy image of the “Girl Next Door” that fused innocence with sexuality.

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Vietnam War Donut Dollies

The most poignant parts of the book are the stories of the women who consistently worked within the confines of their rigid roles to create new, more-meaningful aspects of their service. Though technically both provided “entertainment,” it seems unfair to group the Donut Dollies, who lived in country and had personal relationships with troops, with the touring USO performers.

The epilogue is disappointing as it includes a polemic featuring the scandal that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the U.S. Senate. But this is a minor quibble in a book that successfully examines a specific theme and provides an excellent reference on the historic role of civilian women who worked with the troops in America’s 20th and 21st century wars.

—Daniel R. Hart

Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel