Her uniform in Vietnam was a powder blue dress.
Connie Dugan Popel was a recreation aide for the American Red Cross for a year-long tour. Of the 1,200 women who worked for the American Red Cross in Vietnam throughout the Vietnam War, 627 were part of the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas Program — better known as the “Donut Dollies” — who were there from 1965-72.
The Donut Dollies program was first created in World War II and was brought back during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Popel was a Donut Dollie from September 1969 until November 1970.
“You had to be a college graduate. I went to Washington, D.C., for two weeks of intensive training,” she said.
Popel was a college senior in Ohio majoring in sociology when she saw a recruitment poster for Donut Dollies on a bulletin board. “No. 1, the big thing was I didn’t know what to do after college. Then, I saw the poster and I thought, ‘This sounds fascinating,'” she said. “Plus I love to travel. And I was used to family game nights at home.”
A recreation background was not required, just a college degree. The military wanted a group of young women to go to Vietnam to develop troop morale programs at the request of Gen. William Westmoreland, the then-commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
“Most of us were between 21 and 24. And most of the guys [in Vietnam] were much younger. We were like their big sisters. I really like people. I’m very, very outgoing.”
The Perry, Ohio, native graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She mailed her application to the American Red Cross and received a phone call to go to the Red Cross chapter in Alexandria, Va., for her interview. Her parents, Charles and Joyce Dugan, were not thrilled to see the oldest of their three children leave for a war zone. But she had traveled to the Netherlands as an American field service student during her senior year in high school, so they weren’t entirely surprised.
The women were flown by helicopter to the various landing zones and fire bases where the troops were located. They would travel in pairs to the units and host recreation programs around themes that the troops liked — such as football or music trivia. They would use flashcards and lead games on poster boards.
“We’d probably do like six stops per day,” Popel said. They would meet their groups in an open area. The troops would gather around and then play games as a welcome diversion from the war.
“We were like the girl back home. We represented a ‘touch of home’ or the girl next door,” Popel said. There could be from five to as many as 100 soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines at these visits. Usually, the group would average from 20-30.
Besides the women who went out on these “club mobiles,” two would stay back at the recreation centers where they would lead the troops in playing pool, ping-pong or cards.
“And we also had coffee and Kool-Aid,” Popel said. Unlike their World War II counterparts, the Donut Dollies didn’t serve doughnuts in Vietnam.
Popel was stationed at three different military bases during her tour. She was a recreation aide at Cam Ranh Bay with the Air Force’s 20th Support Group and the Army’s 578th Signal Company from September 1969 to March 1970. She was a program director in Da Nang with the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force from March to June 1970. She was the unit director at Bien Hoa from June to November 1970 with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division and the 20th Engineer Brigade.
During a visit to Quang Tri with the 5th Infantry Division, a mortar attack sent her scurrying to a bunker in her flak jacket and helmet.
“And it’s the oddest thing, I never was afraid [in Vietnam],” Popel said. “I don’t know why.”
After returning home, she worked briefly for a travel company. From 1970-72, she served as a Red Cross recreation aide at Valley Forge General Hospital outside of Philadelphia. They had a recreation center for the psychiatric ward where she provided games, readings, songs and movies for troops returning from Vietnam.
“I think my role [as a Donut Dollie] was to be myself,” Popel said, “I’m known for my smile and I smiled and smiled and smiled. And I think that I represented maybe an American girl who cared, who hoped that I brought some kind of happiness for a second in a horrible, horrible war.”
“It was the best year of my life,” she said. “I was very naive. But I grew up, like we all did. The camaraderie between the girls, we made lifelong friends. In fact, in September I’m going to a mini-reunion. I’m flying to Denver where one of the girls has a cabin. So we decided to get together. I think there’s like seven of us.”
She worked for Continental/United Airlines as a flight attendant from 1999 until she retired in 2016 after more than 17 years.
She has a daughter, Suzanne, a son, Johnny and two granddaughters. Now 75, Popel is a member of the American Red Cross Overseas Association. She has volunteered with the Madison County chapter of the American Red Cross on a disaster action team since January 2019 and she works at the office Monday mornings. She is a member of Learning Quest in Huntsville.
“I knew we were doing what we were asked to do [as Donut Dollies],” she said, “when you would just see this forlorn GI smile.”