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MRFA Speech 2005

SPEECH GIVEN BY EMILY STRANGE AT THE
MOBILE RIVERINE FORCE / 9TH INFANTRY DIVISION REUNION
AT THE DRAWBRIDGE IN FT. MITCHELL, KY SEPTEMBER 2005

So, what is a Donut Dollie?

JOB DESCRIPTION:
DONUT DOLLIE

i flew to desolate fire bases and brown water Navy ships
filled with the tools of war
and the men who used them

it was my job to perform the miracle
of making the war disappear
(however briefly)
for boys who had been trained to kill

it was my mission to raise the morale
of children who had grown old too soon
watching friends die

it was my calling
to take away fear and replace it with hope
to return sanity to a world gone insane

i was the mistress of illusion
as i pulled smiles from the dust and heat
the magical genie of "back-in-the-world"
as i created laughter in the mud

but when the show was over
i crawled back into my bottle
and pulled the cork in tightly behind me

emily strange
©1992

First, I would like to clear up a rumor that my good friend Albert Moore has been spreading. He has told a number of people that I ran the Benewah aground when it was at anchor. I would like to state here and now that I never ran the Benewah aground. It was the Vernon County that I ran aground while it was at anchor. I apologize for any part I had in perpetuating this rumor and I hope this ends the ugly rumor once and for all.

It is important that you understand that Donut Dollies had only 2 weeks training in Washington, DC, to prepare us to go to war. We learned such essential things as how to identify rank, that our skirts should not be more than 1 inch above our knees, that we should always act like ladies and that we should NEVER drink alcohol when we were in uniform.

They did not have amphibian training for us nor did we learn how to fire M-16s. The ladylike way of boarding a helicopter in a skirt was never explained, nor was the proper thing to do when the prop wash blew the skirts over our heads. The fact that there were no "ladies rooms" at firebases was not mentioned nor was the proper dress code for running from the shower to the bunker. As a matter of fact, the words "mortar attack" were never spoken during our 2 weeks of training. Imagine my surprise when I got to Dong Tam!

Despite our lack of Amphibian training, we were allowed to bring our programs out to the ships and I must tell you that it was a real treat to visit the ships. They were clean, no dirt or mud, they had wonderful food and, for us ladies, it was a real pleasure to use flush toilets. The men who served on those Navy ships were true gentlemen. No matter who was given the task of guiding us around the ship, they always let us climb the ladders first IN OUR SKIRTS but always went down first to catch us in case we slipped.

We programmed at different locations on the ships. I remember programming in sick bay and it touched my heart to see the sick and wounded smile and even laugh.

I remember one time that you Navy guys had gone to quite a bit of trouble to make our arrival on the ship really special. Two young, handsome sailors met us at the chopper, helped us off, took our game bag and led us over to the side of the ship. When we reached the side, they had us peer over so we could see the barge packed with young men anxiously awaiting our decent down that REALLY LONG LADDER. They were all waving and whistling, beckoning us to "come on down." At that moment I felt like a gorgeous movie star ready to make her grand entrance down the spiral staircase in an elegant movie. In the next moment, I thought to myself, "maybe there was some validity to the Red Cross rule about the length of our skirts." Another thing the Red Cross had failed to mention in our training was that we would need to be really good sports in a country filled with young, testosterone crazed boy/men!!!

Looking out at you men today, many of you Fathers, even Grandfathers, I wonder deep in my heart - how would you feel about your daughter being escorted up and down ladders in a war zone by a bunch of horny sailors?

Now, I certainly don't want to leave out you rugged, macho 9th Infantry Division soldiers. It was pure magic to jump on a helicopter, fly to some muddy/dusty desolate firebase, drop out of the sky and watch trained killers turn into bashful little boys. I saw a miracle each time I watched a thousand yard stare change into a bright eyed smile.

Sometimes we played silly games and other times we just sat and talked with you guys. One day I was at a firebase and the subject came up that Donut Dollies should know how to fire an M-16. I had never been around guns until I went to Vietnam. There I saw the damage guns could do and I saw no reason why I should learn to fire one. But you guys could be persistent. The scenario came up that the firebase where I was could be attacked while I was there. What if the firebase was being overrun and there were M-16s laying on the ground beside men who had been killed and injured. Wouldn't I want to help save their lives as well as my own?!? In the end, I agreed to fire one bullet.

So the group of men took me out into a cleared area, showed me how to hold the weapon, gave me a few pointers, told me where to aim and then told me to fire. What they did not tell me was that they had put in a full clip and put the weapon on "rock-n-roll." So, when I pulled the trigger, that M-16 started emptying its clip wherever it chose to. I had a death grip on that gun just trying to keep it from jumping out of my hands. I was holding on with all my might - which included holding my finger on the trigger until the entire clip was empty.

Standing here today, I can tell you that those guys thought it was a really funny joke - once the blood had returned to their terror stricken faces.

If there is anyone here who participated in that practical joke, I would love to talk with you after this event. There is a question I have always wanted to ask. "What the HELL were you thinking?!?! Again, I ask you Fathers and Grandfathers, would you want your daughter to be on the firing end of that M-16 - or your son to be anywhere close to a skinny little Donut Dollie who had no control over an M-16 with a full clip?!?

Sometimes it seems that Vietnam was a lifetime ago. Other times it seems like it was only yesterday. I can still see your faces as young men in a war zone even as this gray haired lady stands before you as a relic of your past. It was an honor and a privilege to serve with the brave, courageous men and women of the Mobile Riverine Force and 9th Infantry Division. War forges bonds that transcend time and breaks down the superficial barriers. Together here tonight, it matters not whether we are rich or poor, male or female, soldier, sailor or civilian. We are forever bonded by the simple fact that we all served in the Vietnam war in a place called the Mekong Delta.

We have all breathed the desiccated dust of the Delta and been mired down by the monsoon mud. We have all been on the receiving end of VC ammo, though not all of us were allowed to fire back. We know the true joy of a long awaited shower, dry sox and the very rare icy cold beer. We have savored the luscious taste of the coveted canned peaches and pound cake.

We learned those many years ago how precious life is and how fragile. Better than anyone, we know without question that when America sends her troops off to fight and die for their country, they and their families deserve the support of the American people.

I cared so deeply about each and every one of you. When I watched you jump on the choppers headed for a mission, I feared for your safety. When the ammo dump was blown up one night, it was you Navy guys that I desperately prayed for. When I learned of casualties, my tears fell into the well of tears to be cried later, when you no longer needed my smile to remind you of home.

I was always so touched with the way you tried to protect the Donut Dollies. My heart was warmed by the pains you took to clean up your language when we arrived - as though Donut Dollies had never heard 4 letter words. I appreciated the way you so steadfastly guarded the latrine (head for you sailors) when we were in there. When we attended your stand down parties in Dong Tam, I was humbled that you risked your own lives to assure we made it to the bunker.

Tonight, I stand in a room full of heroes. Tonight, as in Vietnam, we celebrate the simple fact that we are alive and together, even as we remember those who have gone before us.

I would like to leave you with the story of my first mortar attack. Male or female, soldier, sailor or civilian, if you spent much time in Dong Tam, you were definitely going to experience a first mortar attack. If you were lucky, you would get to experience more than one.

 

MY FIRST MORTAR ATTACK

I suppose everyone remembers their first mortar attack. I remember parts of mine. My good friend, Barb, had finally talked me into singing with a group that sang around Dong Tam by countering my argument of,
      "I really don't sing all that well," 
with,
        "the guys don't care…they just want to stare at you."
(Prior to my joining the group, she was the only female, so she knew these things.)

"Well, if you get me drunk enough………."
"No problem!!!"
So I ate steaks with the group and drank a keg or so of beer and was ready for whatever might happen. What did I, the FNG, know about the Navy EM club?

I'm pretty sure every guy in there bought me a drink and pinched my ass, so, by the time I got back to the hooch it was past curfew, I was way past drunk and Donut 6 was waiting with the appropriate lecture which I don't exactly remember but am sure I listened to contritely, made the appropriate apologies, then went to my room and promptly passed out.

In Dong Tam, when there was a mortar attack, certain rituals occurred. First, an obnoxiously loud siren went off. Next, the MP who guarded our gate stopped at each woman's door and knocked……just in case we had missed the blaring siren.

On this particular night, I remained passed out through both of those occurrences and awoke to Donut 6 screaming, at the top of her lungs, something like:

"FOR GOD'S SAKE GET OUT OF THERE BEFORE WE BOTH DIE."

Even in my drunken stupor, that sounded pretty serious…….particularly screamed in that tone……..but my mind was so foggy…….and it was so hot……….and I was so nude………

OK…….. I'll just throw the poncho liner around me and get the hell out of here……….which I did…….and ran staggering toward the door………..but ended up on the floor bare ass to concrete……….somehow in my confused state I had failed to remember that I had tied that slippery poncho liner to my bed to keep it from sliding off.

"GET OUT OF THERE!!! WE'RE BEING MORTARED!!!"

Well, that would explain all those explosions I keep hearing.

"I'M COMING………I'M COMING!!!"

Actually, that was a lie. I was still sitting on the floor trying to untie the damned poncho liner. Modesty had not yet been abandoned.

After finally succeeding, I made another grand dash to the door………..only to discover that, for the first and only time I was in Nam………I had locked the door. (Where the hell did I put the key?)

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT WE CAN BOTH DIE HERE. GET TO THE BUNKER NOW!!!"

"I'M HURRYING. I SWEAR………I'M HURRYING"

(Dear, Lord, please help me find the key)

By the time we made it to the bunker, I had sobered up enough to realize that this was, indeed, dangerous. One round had landed in the ditch next to our hooch, so the fact that Donut 6 and I were still alive and uninjured was only by the grace of God………and it was really pretty frightening sitting in that bunker listening to the mortars falling around us.

emily strange
©1999

LESSONS LEARNED

If you wander onto a boat late at night in search of a restroom, the men living on the boat are never wearing proper attire for female guests.

This lesson also applies to bunkers late at night.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your world then and now. You were my heroes then and you still are. You will always hold a cherished place in my heart.

PS:
(During the reunion, I learned that it was not Donut 6, but the MP who was guarding our gate, Dennis Capsten,  who ran back to get me on the night of my first mortar attack.  Thanks for risking your life to save mine, Dennis.)

emily strange
© 9/2005

 

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