From Donut Dollie to the Milwaukee VA: Evans marks 50 years of military support

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

As Mary Evans leafed through a box labeled “Vietnam,” she verbally connected the dots along her American Red Cross volunteer contributions, from Memorial Day at the Milwaukee VA in 2018 to her stint as a “Donut Dollie” exactly 50 years ago.

Mary Evans with Donut Dollies pic

Mary Evans, SAF volunteer, holds a snapshot taken in Vietnam during her time as a Donut Dollie.

In the box, amid the color pictures: scenes of Evans with G.I.s in front of Christmas trees covered in tinsel during downtime; a trio of soldiers around Evans, two smiling and one solemn, posed in front of endless barracks. In black-and-white photos: a band rocking out, followed by a shot of Evans, in Red Cross stylized dress, in front of a lineup of military trucks. An illustrated “Pocket Guide to Vietnam” tour book. A laminated Red Cross “Emergency Identification” issued under Evans’s maiden name, de la Forest.

Evans, who lives in Milwaukee with her husband, John, shared the memories from five decades ago in part to keep alive the service of the Donut Dollies, but also in hopes to inspire others to volunteer for service members through the Red Cross.

“The role we had … I think it was incredible,” Evans said. “To all of them, you were like their sister, their mother, their girlfriend. I think we provided a tremendous service in taking their minds off things.”


Click here for a list of veterans and active duty resources from the American Red Cross, as well as to find out ways you can help.


Through a Red Cross program called Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas, American women volunteered to bring refreshments, entertainment and a flash of cheer to military servicemen during the Vietnam War. They were dubbed “Donut Dollies” by service members, a name that stuck, though their goodwill work amid the trauma of war is sometimes misremembered or lost.

Mary Evans with soldiers Donut Dollies

Mary Evans, center, poses with some of the soldiers she worked with in 1968 as an American Red Cross volunteer in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.

Evans said she “felt something was missing” in her life in spring 1968. Graduated from college and working at a bank in San Francisco, she wanted to get involved in a positive way in the war that served as a flashpoint for one of the most chaotic years in global history. Compelled to do something for those in military service, Evans called an American Red Cross office in northern California. And, “six weeks later, I was on my way” to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, off the South China Sea.

Evans and the other Dollies would put together 50 minutes of games, activities and entertainment, amid their namesake snacks and refreshments, at about six U.S. Army sites per day, five to six days a week. There was plenty of time for competition in the activities, and conversation throughout their visits. Evans said she felt the enlisted “lifers” were more lonely and appreciative of the lifeline to something outside of war when the Dollies came. They frequently ran into soldiers at a high or low, as she said they often presented their programs immediately before or after soldiers took leave.

In a warzone, Evans hesitated to call their volunteering dangerous. But it was clear they were far from home.

Mary Evans ID card Donut Dollies

A 1968 American Red Cross I.D. for Mary Evans (nee de la Forest). Evans remains active with Service to the Armed Forces volunteering in Wisconsin.

“Jeeps, trucks, choppers … MPs would pick us up and they would drive us back for several miles to our center. There were flares going up across the Bay, but I felt safe almost the whole time,” she said.

When Evans’s father passed away suddenly, her stint in Vietnam ended so that she could come home to help her mother and family. As free time cropped up, she returned to volunteering with the Red Cross at a medical hospital near her home in Santa Rosa, Calif. Although she couldn’t return to Vietnam with the Red Cross as she had hoped, while stateside she was able to stay in touch with fellow Donut Dollies and Army service members as they returned.

Years on and starting her own family, Evans moved to southeast Wisconsin. It wasn’t long before she dialed the local Red Cross to see how she could contribute, once again for those who served. This call brought her to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, where, during Red Cross volunteer activities, she’s been able to get to know Jaime, a former Tuskegee Airman, and Norm, a combat-wounded veteran with a penchant for polka music. In a different way than her Donut Dollies days, these Wednesday mornings at the Milwaukee VA gave her the sense of providing relief and escape for service members.

“It’s not so much looking back at what they did or what we did. We’re mainly thanking them for their service,” she said.

Mary Evans SAF Memorial Day 2018

Mary Evans and her husband, John, at left, shared lunch with veterans and fellow Red Cross volunteers at the Milwaukee VA on Memorial Day 2018.

Evans has slowed down with volunteering in the past year, with time focused on a few family matters. But she did participate with other Red Cross volunteers in the big Memorial Day barbecue at the Milwaukee V.A. in 2018, bringing meals to vets unable to make it outside. And her foundation in giving herself to service members and veterans hasn’t wavered since the ‘60s, said Richard Seymour, Service to the Armed Forces program director, Wisconsin Region.

“Support for veterans and service members are core to the Red Cross mission, and Mary has embodied that mission for five decades,” Seymour said. “Whether on the frontlines in Vietnam or at a community commemoration in Milwaukee, Mary puts her heart into the volunteer work she does with our service members.”

Find out how you can become a Service to the Armed Forces volunteer here.

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Remembering One of Our Own Donut Dollies: Emily Strange

Emily Strange (July 23, 1946 – July 12, 2016) served as a Red Cross Donut Dollie with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force. The Red Cross program was called Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO).

When President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country”, what call to actions do you think of to help your country? Recycle more? Travel to third world countries and provide support in education and health? As a young college graduate in the 1960’s from Atlanta, Georgia, Emily Strange went to Vietnam as a Donut Dollie with the American ReIMG_2583d Cross to provide aide and a piece of home to soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.

Side lesson: Donut Dollies started in WWI then continued onto WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War. Donut Dollies made and brought donuts and coffee to soldiers on base. It was one of the many things they did, to help ease soldiers’ minds into a safe and comforted feeling to mentally escape the war environment, even if it was just for a little bit.

Earlier this year in April, the Red Cross honored Emily Strange at her residence, Rainbow Hospice Care Inc. in Johnson Creek, WI. She, along with two other Donut Dollies, Pat Rowan of Texas and Margaret “Maggie” Godson of South Carolina and Registered Nurse Joan Garvert of Illinois were awarded with a certificate and pin for their courageous service.

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Strange reminisced with the Red Cross about comforting the soldiers– they had just lost a lot of the men in their unit and were digging holes for the night. She spoke to them; joked around and comforted them to ease their minds, “maybe we’re not gonna die tonight”. Watch: https://youtu.be/ypUfKznwQgU

She even wore perfume around the soldiers to help them sense their girlfriends, mothers and a piece of home. It took them out of the war.

Strange passed away last month at Rainbow Hospice Care Inc. Barbara Behling, Red Cross Chief Communications Officer, was an attendee at the ceremony. She said that when Strange spoke it was like an “open window to her soul”. The courageous stories Strange told and the memories she shared were incredible. She is truly missed.

To learn more about the Donut Dollies, please visit http://www.donutdollies.com/.

Strange also created her own website to share her Donut Dollies stories and to reconnect with those that served in Vietnam: www.EmilyDD.com.


Thank you, Emily Strange!

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Overcoming War, Sickness, & Struggle – My Mother’s Heroic Story

By: PaKou Lee, Social Media Intern

“Who is your hero?”

I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, whether it was for a school essay, speech presentation or in your daily conversations. There are so many different and amazing answers: celebrities, super heroes, a family member or a stranger… the list is endless.

My mother. She is my hero. When I think about my mother, she is definitely heroic. Her story is incredible. And here’s why:

My mother, Mao Moua, at Christmas time!

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong people aided the United States by rescuing downed pilots and fighting where America needed them. The Veit Cong were hunting down the Hmong people because of this. Can you imagine running for your life in the jungles of Laos? You’re holding your children’s hands, hoping they don’t make any noise. Fearing that if your child cries of hunger, the sound will attract the enemy that carries a deadly weapon. Then you have to think quickly as to how you and your family are going to swim across the Mekong River to get to the Thailand border, where temporarily freedom awaits. (I always imagine trying to swim across the Mississippi River, which is crazy!). You beg for your life to get on a boat. You find ways to build a boat out of bamboo. All of these thoughts and images cross my mind when I think about my mother. I don’t think I would ever be able to handle what she and my older siblings went through. I have a better life because she survived the war. 

I was in elementary school when she started studying for her citizenship. She barely spoke English, she knew the basic ‘yes and no’ and so forth, yet she still struggled. She played her tape cassette all day long, listening and learning about what was going to be on her citizen test. She would repeat the questions and answers to herself, “Who was the first president of the United States? George Washington.” My mom passed her test and became a citizen. She studied and practiced so hard, she deserved every bit of it. I was so proud of her.

My mother passed away when I was twenty. I think I was a junior in high school when she was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure.  She had dialysis three times a week, 3-4 hours a day at DaVita. During my first two and half years of college, I scheduled my classes around her dialysis schedule so I could go with her. I don’t know how she did it. I wasn’t even the one receiving dialysis and I was always exhausted during and after. There were times when we stayed overnight for a few days at the hospital every month. It was definitely a roller coaster. Her blood sugar was too low or her blood pressure was too high. Something was always wrong.

I remember when she received her first blood transfusion. The nurse explained the process and consent forms. I had to explain it to my mom in Hmong. She teased me because I couldn’t pronounce a Hmong word correctly or couldn’t find the right term. It was a good laughing medicine.

I want to thank my mother’s heroes: the nurses, doctors, and especially the blood donors. Without your generous donations, I’m not sure what would have happened. But I’m glad my mother was able to receive it and be able to live. Thank you for helping my hero stay alive and be a little bit stronger for me. I’m so thankful to be a part of the American Red Cross and to have Jody Weyers be my mentor. I’ve met amazing people and new friends through this internship. I’m so proud to be a Red Crosser!

#BeAHero