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Interview with Richard Donovan, May 2, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Richard Donovan, May 2, 2008
May 2, 2008
Interview with Retired Chaplain, U.S. Army Richard Donovan.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Donovan, Richard Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  5/2/2008 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  80 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 2nd of May in the year 2008 and we're here in Kansas City, Missouri. Our interviewee today is Chaplain Richard Donovan, retired chaplain, U.S. Army. Good morning, sir, how are you?

Donovan: Good morning, just fine, thank you.

Zarbock: Chaplain, what individual or series of individuals or event or series of events led you into the ministry?

Donovan: Well, I think the most important influence was my mother, who was a person of real serious Christian faith, a Baptist and Sunday school teacher and made sure I was in church every Sunday and then when I was in high school I joined a youth group in a church that praised recruiting people for ministry.

Zarbock: Now where was this church?

Donovan: That was in Junction City, Kansas, First Christian Church, and several of my friends had decided to go in the ministry. There was a bible college of our denomination in Manhattan, Kansas about 20 miles away. Some of the people in the church were in study at Manhattan at that time, others were planning to go, so I was a part of a community of faith that prized ministry, prized recruiting for ministry and so as a result of their influence when I was a sophomore in high school I made a decision that that's what I wanted to do with my life. I felt like that's where I was being called to go.

Zarbock: And what year was that, sir?

Donovan: That would've been 1955, a long time ago. (laughs)

Zarbock: Indeed. So, the decision was made more or less cooly, I mean you weren't on the road to Damascus?

Donovan: I don't have any grand stories to tell about that, no.

Zarbock: But this confidence grew in you and you made the decision?

Donovan: Well, yeah. When you say the confidence grew in me, that describes a very long journey, because I felt called to do this and I -- when I got out of high school, I went to this little bible college, but there was a part of me that didn't want to be there and a part of me that felt very uncomfortable with what I was doing. They had a program at the bible college where people who were students there could become what they called student pastors, pastors of small congregations in rural communities throughout Kansas. So when I was 18 years old, I started being the pastor of a small congregation in northeast Kansas.

Zarbock: This was a salaried position?

Donovan: Yes, not much of a salary. (laughs) That gives it a much grander note, yeah, but yeah $25.00 a week. And so the church was 100 miles from where I went to school and so I would leave at 7:00 on a Saturday morning, I'd go up to the church, I would visit with people on Saturday, work my sermon and then on Sunday I would teach a Sunday school class, I would have a worship service with a sermon, I would go out to lunch with one of the families, one of these farm families. Grand food, best food I've ever had, you know, and then that evening I was responsible for a youth group and then a second service, 18 years old, you know, didn't know up from down. And I did that for two years. That was really one of the. . .

Zarbock: While still going to school?

Donovan: While still going to school. That was one of those painful times in my life because I was so aware of how totally inadequate I was, you know.

Zarbock: Well, I'm familiar with the phrase idle hands are a devil's workshop, well you must've been Simon Pure, for Heaven's sake.

Donovan: Oh I'll tell you, it was awful. I was going to school taking it full-time, I was doing this ministry, which helped to pay the expenses but did not fully do that, so I had night jobs and, you know, summer jobs, and I didn't have any financial support from home, my father was in kind of a bad time in his life, so yeah, it was awful. (laughs) After two years of that, another church came open that was close to my home, and so I quit the church up in northeast Kansas and made that move, and then in that church I only had to have one sermon and by that time I had a little more maturity, a little more background and that was much easier, but those first two years were pretty tough. And the other thing is that I was really struggling because I thought with my personality I would do better as an engineer or some sort of a scientist or something along those lines. I really thought, "I'm not cut out for this," so I really did some struggling with that and considered switching into some other area, but I also felt this call to continue a ministry and so I was very torn. After I completed my work with the bible college, I went to seminary and I continued that struggle. In fact, at one point after I'd been in the seminary for a year or two, I quit for a semester and I went to talk to the dean, who was a guy I respected, and I said, you know, "I'm gonna quit seminary." I said, "It has nothing to do with dissatisfaction with the seminary, I just am having a real crisis in faith. I'm not sure I believe this stuff anymore." And so I quit. I went over to a nearby university and enrolled in some courses in history. I though I would go get a PhD in history and I'll teach history.

Zarbock: You're probably 22, 23?

Donovan: Yeah, mm-hmm, and so after I'd been there for awhile, I began to say to myself, "You know, it doesn't matter whether I'm here or in ministry or wherever, I have to take it on faith that what I'm doing will have some significance, and if I'm gonna take it on faith that what I'm doing has some significance, I think my real call is to do it over where I started." And so I went back to seminary really quite reinvigorated. My grades went, you know, from kind of mediocre, way up and I finished seminary with a little bit of a flourish, you know, but I still didn't know what I wanted to do. I had served as, you know, in this student pastor kind of role from the time I was 18 years old through college and through seminary and was never really comfortable in that role. I did not like being the pastor of a congregation. I thought probably the reason was that I was always trying to do two or three things, doing none of them as well as I would like, and I thought if all I had to do was be a pastor of a congregation, maybe I could handle that and be okay with it, but there was always a part of me that was not quite comfortable with that. And so at some point after I had graduated from seminary, my friends were being ordained and I thought, you know, "I ought to be ordained as well," and so I applied for ordination and the denomination called committee people, from a dozen people or so from around the state to interview me, and they required that I write a paper called Theology and Ministry, in which I outlined my understanding of ministry and how I fit into that and what I was planning to do. And so I knew what they were looking for. And then I had the crisis of am I going to tell them what they want to hear or am I going to tell them the truth, you know? And so I decided well, I'd better tell them the truth and we'll see where the chips fall. And so I wrote this paper and I told them that I was not really comfortable being a pastor of a congregation and I didn't feel like that's where I was being called and that I didn't know where I was being called. I felt like I had been called to study for ministry and to prepare for it, but I didn't know where that was going to lead me. And what I wanted to do was to kill time going to school, getting a PhD, and hoping that the Lord would kind of make it clear, you know, what the next step would be and they said, "Oh, okay, will you teach church history in the seminary?" And I said, "Well, maybe, but I'd be just as comfortable in a secular institution." I said, you know, "It's just kind of wherever the Lord decides to open the door but if the Lord doesn't open any doors, then I'm free to do whatever I want to, you know, but I'd really rather have some continuing sense of call." And so they said, "Is there any area of ministry like hospital chaplaincy or director of religious education or anything like that that you might want to consider?" And I said, "The only thing that has ever seemed attractive to me is military chaplaincy." I was raised in Junction City, Kansas, which is near Fort Riley, and I was acquainted with military families, although I had only the vaguest idea of what a military chaplain did. They said, "Have you ever followed up on that, have you ever tried to learn about the chaplaincy?" And I said, "Well, there's a military chaplain that comes to the seminary once a year, sets up a booth downstairs, talks to anybody that wants to talk to him, and so I go by his booth every year, and I've collected all the materials and I've read through those and I've talked to him, but that's the furthest I've gone." So they said, "Well," see our denominational headquarters was co-located in the same community in Indianapolis with the seminary, and so they said, "Have you ever talked to Bill Vivrett?" I said, "Who's Bill Vivrett?" They said, "Well, he's the denominational executive in charge of military chaplaincy."

Zarbock: How do you spell his name, do you remember?

Donovan: V as in Victor, I, V as in Victor, R-E-T-T, yeah. And so they encouraged me to go over and talk to Bill, so I did that, I made an appointment, went over to talk to him. Before I went over to talk to him, I went to the university library and went through the periodical index and found all the articles I could find on military chaplaincy, which were not very many articles and I found probably three or four and one or two of them were favorable, one was probably neutral and one was a very critical article written by a former Navy chaplain who said, "When I went into the Navy chaplaincy, they made me a library officer, they made me a recreation officer." He said, "I didn't go into the chaplaincy, into the ministry to be a library officer and so I got out." So I went to Bill and I said, "You know, I've done some research and this Navy chaplain says thus and so," so I said, "I didn't go to seminary to be a library officer either, so what goes?" And he said, "Well, on board a ship in the Navy, there are only a limited number of officers," and he said, "so every officer has to take additional duties, and that includes the chaplain, and so, you know, this guy, his primary duty was to be a chaplain and he should have understood that, but he had these other duties as additional duties as part of being a part of that community," and I thought, "That's a good answer." And so he, you know, we talked further. I would've liked to have been an Air Force chaplain, it just seemed much more glamorous to me than the Army, but there were no openings in the Air Force, there were no openings in the Army but this was 1966, Vietnam was pretty hot and Bill said, "The Army has expanded dramatically in its numbers, the Navy and Air Force have not," and he said, "so we have openings in the Army, we do not have openings in the other services, and so," he said, "if you can pass the physical and the background check and all the rest of it, we can get you in as an Army chaplain but not in any other services." And I said, "Well, let's go." He said, "Now, if we do this," he said, "you're going to have to, the way it works you're going to have to go through training, then you will go one year to a stateside assignment and then you will go one year to Vietnam." He said, "All that is non-negotiable. If you're not willing to go to Vietnam, then yeah, hit the road." And I said, "I wouldn't be here if I weren't willing to go to Vietnam." So we went through the process, filled out the paperwork, applied for the background checks, went through the physical, which is a very degrading experience, (laughs) and it took about a year and that was kind of interesting too, because while I was going to seminary, I got a job running a large dormitory, 500-man dorm for Butler University.

Zarbock: For where?

Donovan: Butler, B-U-T-L-E-R, and that helped keep me going financially and then I also had a church, this small church, and so that's the way I supported myself through seminary and I was coming to the end of the academic year and I still had not heard anything from the Army, and I thought, "You know, I can just act like I'm gonna be around next year, continue at the church, continue at the dorm, but then when the Army calls, if the Army calls, I'm really gonna leave these people hanging," you know, because they need to find students who are coming in to take these places. And so I went ahead and submitted my resignation at the church, submitted my resignation to the Dean of Men at the university and hoped the Army called. (laughs)

Zarbock: Talk about a leap of faith.

Donovan: That was a tough one, yeah. And so went through the summer, nothing, I'm still working at the dorm, still working at the church, my resignation's effective at the beginning of the school year, and so at the end of August, a buddy of mine and I were going to take a vacation, went to Nova Scotia by car, and so we took off still not knowing, and every day, there was a secretary at the dormitory where I worked, and every day I would call back and say, "Is there anything from the Army?" "No, nothing from the Army." And finally somewhere in the middle of that trip I called back and the lady whose husband had been in the service, said, "Oh yes, there's a big packet here from the Army." And I said, "Well, what's in it?" She said, "Well, I didn't open it," she said, "that's your mail." And I said, "Open it!" And so she opened it and I said, "What does it say?" and she said, "Well, it says that there are orders in here," and you know the fact that her husband had been in the Army meant she could read this stuff, she said, "orders in here," and I said, "Well, where am I going?" She said, "Fort Riley, Kansas." I said, "Oh please no, I joined the Army to see the world and I grew up two miles from Fort Riley, Kansas." She said, "Well, this says you're going to Fort Riley, Kansas." (laughs) So there I was. So that was kind of my journey, but you know, once the door opened so that I could get into the Army chaplaincy, it was like I was home, and all those tensions that I'd been living with for years just all went away and I thought, "You know, this is what I want to do now. We'll find out if that's what the Lord wants me to do, you know."

Zarbock: And how to do it.

Donovan: And how to do it, that's right, yeah. But that's kind of the story of how I ended up in the ministry and ended up in the Army chaplaincy.

Zarbock: But you had no previous military experience?

Donovan: No military experience other than brought up in an Army town and knowing, you know, going to school with kids whose parents were in the Army and knowing people in the Army, that sort of thing.

Zarbock: But there you are an officer and you've never worn a uniform.

Donovan: That's right. That's an interesting story too, because in the package, some things I got from the Army, they submitted me a big, long mimeographed list of clothing, military clothing, you know, and various things to buy. They said, "You're to report for duty at the chaplain school at Fort Hamilton, New York on the 1st of October 1967," and said, "you will come dressed in Class A uniform," whatever that meant, and here, you know, "have all these uniforms purchased and all the insignias sewn on and be ready to go." So Fort Benjamin Harrison was just outside of Indianapolis, I went to Fort Benjamin Harrison, showed them my orders so I could get in and went to the military clothing store and they said, "What do you need?" and I said, "Here's the list." And so they helped me get all that stuff together and they pointed me to the military tailor who would sew on all that stuff.

Zarbock: Could you afford to buy all of those uniforms? That must've strapped you?

Donovan: It was very difficult. I knew this was coming and so the summer prior to this vacation in Nova Scotia, I'd taken a nighttime job working in a factory so that I would be able to save up the money to buy the clothing, yeah, so that's how I got that. Otherwise, I don't know how I would've done that.

Zarbock: That must've exhausted your bank account?

Donovan: It pretty well did, yeah. And I got a copy of something called The Officer's Guide and it had a lot of things in it, one of which was how to put the brass on a Class A uniform. And so I got in my car late September, drove from Indianapolis to New York City, stopped in New Jersey, this side of New York a little bit and stayed in a Holiday Inn, and that next day was a Sunday morning and I got up and pulled out my Class A uniform, laid it on the bed, got out my officer's guide and tried to follow that picture and put those crosses and the US's and those other things on straight as I could, you know, and then I got dressed in my uniform for the first time in my life and went to breakfast. (laughs) And walked into the restaurant and thought, "I hope nobody stops me, I could be arrested for impersonating an officer." (laughs)

Zarbock: What was your rank at that time?

Donovan: I was a captain.

Zarbock: Brand new captain.

Donovan: Brand new captain, captain under a zero, you know. And so ate breakfast, drove into New York and got to the guard shack at Fort Hamilton and I was going to explain to this guy who I was and ask where the building was and so on and so he saw my uniform and saluted me, which absolutely disconcerted me. I was lucky not to lose control of the car trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next, you know, but I think I saluted him back. So that was my introduction to the Army. (laughs)

Zarbock: How long was your, I'll call it basic training, your initial training?

Donovan: I think it was nine weeks. It's been a long time ago but it was the 1st of October until sometime early December as I recall, yeah.

Zarbock: And your assignment after that was what?

Donovan: Fort Riley, Kansas. (laughs) And that turned out to be kind of a blessing. My parents by that time had moved from Junction City to a small town about 150 miles away, Osawatomie, Kansas and so I.

Zarbock: Would you spell that please?

Donovan: O-S-A-W-A-T, T as in Tom, O-M-I-E. And so during the time I was at Fort Riley, I was able occasionally to go home over a weekend.

Zarbock: What were your duties and obligations?

Donovan: At Fort Riley?

Zarbock: At Fort Riley?

Donovan: I started out as a trip unit chaplain at Camp Funston and I did that for a couple of months and then one of the chaplains at the big post chapel needed some help with administrative kinds of things, managing the chaplain's fund. It was called a consolidated post chaplain's fund. It was the organization that took care of the bookkeeping and administration for all the funds collected from all the chapel offerings post wide, and so they had to have a chaplain as the primary person, what they called the custodian of the chaplain's fund, and then they would have a young enlisted guy be kind of a bookkeeper or helper and they had a CPA in there as the young enlisted guy, you know, but he was leaving. That's why they were looking for a chaplain that they thought could handle this. And so they thought I could handle it, and so they called me up there and they said, "You're the custodian of the chaplain's fund" and they moved me up to the big post chapel and the CPA went away and I inherited this. Fortunately, he trained me and so I was able to handle that. They gave me another young enlisted man but he was marginally competent. I had to do a lot of the work. So that pretty well filled out the rest of that year.

Zarbock: Is there a parallel between that and the Navy officer's comment about being a librarian?

Donovan: Something like that, yes. (laughs)

Zarbock: You had years of experience, I'm going to use a quaint phrase, you had years of experience as a parish minister, you really did.

Donovan: Yes. About nine years to be exact.

Zarbock: The churches may have been small, but you probably have seen most of the important arguments such as what color is the carpet.

Donovan: Oh yes.

Zarbock: And well, we can't do it on such and such a Sunday because I'm going to be out of town.

Donovan: Well, there's no money for that. (laughs) Yeah.

Zarbock: You do know the phrase the right way, the wrong way and the Army way.

Donovan: Yeah, I do.

Zarbock: They decided that you were a fiscally responsible individual.

Donovan: Yeah, and I was able to handle it pretty well because number one, I was accustomed to doing whatever kind of work I needed to do to be able to support myself going through school and so I was accustomed to being thrown into new things, and so they threw me into a new thing and I learned how to do it. And I was able to manage it in terms of my professional pride by saying, "You know, I'm going to be here ten months more and I'll learn what I can and then I'll go to Vietnam and I'll do that," you know, and so I made the best of it and rather enjoyed it to be honest. I told you that at one point I thought I'd be better off as an engineer or a scientist or something like that, and being a bookkeeper or accountant is something kind of like that.

Zarbock: Is a parallel, sure.

Donovan: Yeah.

Zarbock: Data-based.

Donovan: Dealing with data, that's right, yeah.

Zarbock: Well, there came a day when somebody stuffed you on an airplane I assume.

Donovan: Right.

Zarbock: And off you went.

Donovan: Thanksgiving Day. (laughs)

Zarbock: What year?

Donovan: Sixty-eight. What I did, I actually left Fort Riley on Thanksgiving Day to go visit my parents on Thanksgiving Day and then go to Kansas City and fly out to California, go to Travis Air Force Base, be loaded on a plane and go to Vietnam.

Zarbock: So midwest, young man born and raised, with a little time off in New York, not only leaves the midwest but leaves the continental United States and leaves the whole culture as we know it here and entered this I think strange and bewildering milieu. What did that feel like?

Donovan: Yeah. I was absolutely delighted, you know, I was getting out of Junction City, Kansas. (laughs) I had joined the Army to see the world and now I was getting my chance, you know, and plus I had joined the Army to do ministry with soldiers and I envisioned that that was what I was going to be doing. So when we got to Vietnam, they invited us over to the USAR chaplain's officer, U-S-A-R, gosh I can't, now it wasn't U-S-A-R, U-S-A-R-V, U-S-A-R-V I think, U-S-A-R-V, U.S. Army Vietnam. They had a big map and they had a guy that was responsible for in-country assignments, so a buddy of mine from the basic course at the chaplain school and I had flown together on this flight to Vietnam and so we went over there together, and so the chaplain who was responsible for assignments, and there was a third chaplain along with us, an older guy, so the chaplain responsible for assignments said to the older chaplain, "Well, you were in Korea and we think you've done your part in terms of combat ministry, so we're going to put you in" oh, gosh, I can't remember the name of the place, but it was an R and R center.

Zarbock: And R and R stands for?

Donovan: Rest and recreation. And so they pointed to this place kind of low on the map, far into south, on the coast, and that's where the R and R center was. So I said to my buddy from the chaplain school, and his name was Hank Haga, H-A-G-A, said, "Hank, we're gonna put you here at Bin Hoa," B-I-N H-O-A, and he said, "You're going to be with" whatever the unit was, and then he said, big man, right, he said, "Chaplain Donovan, we're gonna put you up here at Dong Ha [ph?]." Dong Ha was about that far off the DMZ, (laughs) and he said, "You'll be with the 108th Artillery Group" and so that was fine with me. That looked like an exciting place to be and it was. We were located about ten clicks from the DMZ, we had people stretched, this artillery group had people stretched from the DMZ all the way down to Da Nang, D-A N-A-N-G, about 110 miles. And from the coast inward the distance there varied to cover most of the width of Vietnam at some times, roughly 4,000 square miles and many, many units. So the way we covered that, there was a Catholic chaplain assigned to the unit and we worked together. We had one jeep, we had one chapel, he had an assistant, I had an assistant, and so we would take turns, you know, with the assistants and we'd get one of them to drive us. Sometimes we'd take both of them with us and so the Catholic chaplain and I would travel from fire base to fire base conducting services, talking with soldiers.

Zarbock: What was the nature of the combat at that time? Was it medium, high, low, furious episodic?

Donovan: For our guys it was not too bad. They would occasionally get shelled, as we would in Dong Ha occasionally. To be honest, I didn't take that too seriously. I mean when people ran for the bunkers, I ran for the bunkers too, but it was a big combat base and the chances of being hit by one of these rockets was about like the chances, we're in Kansas City right now, had tornado warnings last night, I didn't get too upset about those either. I grew up in Kansas. There are always tornado warnings, you know, the chances that they're going to hit you is not all that great, you know, so I didn't worry too much about it. What I did worry about though was we were out on the road all the time and the enemy was mining the roads, they were running ambushes, things like that. We'd come back and go to the command briefing the next morning and see on the big map where all the ambushes and the minings and things too place the day before and sometimes the road we'd been on the day before looked like it was infected with measles with all these little red dots, you know, showing all these places. So that part was sometimes a little unsettling, you know.

Zarbock: What was the nature of the morale in the troops that you were serving?

Donovan: The morale for the most part was pretty decent. Most of these were just real fine young men who were, most of them were people who had not chosen to be there, the Army had called them in and they'd sent them to Vietnam, they told them this is where you're going to go and what you're going to do, and they were going it to the best of their ability. And you know, there were individual crises, a guy who would get a Dear John letter from his girlfriend of his wife or there would be health problems back home or, you know, whatever, but for the most part it was okay and the artillery that I was working with for the most part, you know, we didn't have very many people who were killed in action. We did have a few, but the danger level was not terribly high for our people. Had an interesting situation when they moved one of our 105 batteries, 105 is a cannon, you know, a Howitzer, they moved one of our 105 batteries up to the top of a mountain, they had taken bulldozers and squared off the top of that mountain. There was a helipad in the middle of this squared off area and our battery was on one side and then a company of the infantry was on the other side and I went up to conduct services as they were moving in and the guys on the artillery side were saying, "Chaplain, you have any idea how long we're going to have to stay up here?" Because it was much worse living, much more confined and so on than they were used to. It was a kind of a place where they had to fly in every bite of food and every cup of water that the unit would use and there were times when during the monsoon season when it was very difficult to do that. The guys on the other side of the helipad, the infantry, were saying to me, "Hey chaplain, you have any idea how long we'll be able to stay up here?"

Zarbock: They never had it so good.

Donovan: Exactly. They were used to being out there walking along never knowing when a mine was going to take their leg off or something or when they were going to be ambushed, and this was, they had a shower up there, they could actually take a shower, you know. And that was good living for them. So I thought the contrast was really interesting.

Zarbock: If you're traveling from fire base to fire base to fire base to fire base, if one of the GIs wanted to see you, how would they go about getting in touch with you?

Donovan: Well, they would mention that to their commander or whoever was the first person in their chain of command.

Zarbock: Would they have to say why they wanted to see you?

Donovan: No, they would just have to say that they wanted to see me and then the burden was on the commander to make sure that it was possible for the person to do that. Now, in some occasions they would have the guy come into where my headquarters was in Dong Ha, but I was gone a lot, so in a lot of cases, you know, I would be at that site within a few days and so they would just hold onto him until I got there, you know.

Zarbock: On a personal level, are you married or are you single at this time?

Donovan: I was single at that time. I married later but that made it a lot easier for me, you know, I didn't have worries about the wife at home and the kids and all that sort of thing, and I wasn't any more lonely in Vietnam than I was (laughs) back in the States. I was lonely both places, you know.

Zarbock: How long were you in Vietnam?

Donovan: I was in Vietnam for 365 days and I think that's kind of interesting too because I was at Fort Riley for something less than a year, a few days less than a year, I was in Vietnam for 365 days, I came back to the States to an assignment that I didn't want to stay in very long because the post chaplain was leaving and he was a good guy but the deputy was not so good and I thought he might take over, which is what eventually happened. And so I volunteers to go back to Vietnam and so I was at that assignment in Maryland for less than a year and then I went back to Vietnam and I was in Vietnam for 365 days. So at the end of four years, I had had four permanent assignments and the two longest ones were my years in Vietnam.

Zarbock: To what were you assigned on the second?

Donovan: I was assigned to MACV. By the time I got back there.

Zarbock: MACV being?

Donovan: Military Assistance something Vietnam. I know it's Military Assistance Command Vietnam I think. Been a long time. I went to Vietnam a second tour. What I did, I volunteered to go back to Vietnam if they would assign me to Vietnam in early January so I could take leave prior and be at home over Christmas, and so they did that. And so I went home over Christmas and I got to Vietnam early January, I can't remember the day now, and by that time, let's see, early '71, by that time there were no American what I call combat units in the delta, which is where I was, other than a couple of helicopter companies. There was not an infantry company, there was not an artillery battery American in the delta. They had turned the whole thing over to the Vietnamese, and what we had down there were advisors and so MACV was the unit for advisors and I forget now how many people we had in my command. I was stationed initially at a place called Dong Tam, D-O-N-G T as in Tango, A-M, and near My Tho, which is M-Y T-H-O, and that was the headquarters for the 7th ARVN Division, A-R-V-N, Vietnamese Army. And so we had probably a couple hundred advisory people at the division headquarters and then we had people at about a hundred different locations, again over about a 4,000 square mile area.

Zarbock: I think it was scattered all over like grain.

Donovan: Yes, exactly. Small detachments. I had five provinces and each province headquarters probably had 100 to 150 people assigned, advisors, and then each province would have 20 locations or so and they would be three-man teams, six-man teams, that sort of thing.

Zarbock: But they're living out in the jungle?

Donovan: They really were. They were out with Vietnamese units and so that as quite an education, quite a challenge, and I really loved it. It was, I think that was one of my favorite assignments in the Army because it was quite a challenge to get to those places. We had a little airstrip out there and I would literally go out to that little airstrip and stick my thumb up in the air and hitchhike, you know, and occasionally I'd have a pilot in a helicopter or sometimes Air America plane, you know, the CIA, only we weren't supposed to know it was CIA, everybody did, but those guys would come over and say, "Where are you going chaplain?" and I said, "Well, I've got people in a hundred different places. Where are you going?" (laughs) And they would tell me where they were going and very often I'd fly out with them. I had one of the Air America guys say, "Well, I'd like to take you Chaplain but you'd have to have orders" and so I went back to my supervisor chaplain and told him about that, and so he signed a stack of blank orders for me. (laughs)

Zarbock: Chaplain, when you were hitchhiking on aircraft, that meant that food, water, ammunitions, medical supplies, etc. you were replacing them in effect, your weight is replacing the weight of these materials. Was there ever any grumbling about the fact that you were replacing ammo or food or beverage?

Donovan: I don't think there was ever any grumbling about the chaplain coming out. There were so many places, you know, and it was pretty irregular to get to any one of them and they all acted like they were very grateful to have me. I don't think it took any food out of anybody's mouth. They were well supplied at that point.

Zarbock: Where would you bunk, let's say you went out to some fire base simply, where would you bunk in at night?

Donovan: Well, it depended. Sometimes I would go out in one of these small units and they would make room for me overnight, you know, they'd have a bunk somewhere. Somebody would be on vacation, on leave, you know, on RandR or something like that.

Zarbock: Take Charlie's bunk.

Donovan: Exactly. Sometimes I'd stay back at the province headquarters. Part of the time the way I got around was I'd contact in advance, I'd go to a province headquarters and I'd say to the provincial commander, you know, the advisor, senior advisor, "I'll be yours for three days and I'll go wherever you can get me" and so they would tell their transportation people to do what they could for me, you know, and I got around pretty well. I just I was so pleased about that because I thought, "This is hard and I think I'm doing it better than most people would be able to do it," you know, and I felt a lot of satisfaction in being able to get out and be with the people on the ground.

Zarbock: I think a very unusual experience, initial experience, is to be overseas at the time of either one of our sacred or one of our secular holidays, Thanksgiving for example, if you're overseas, no matter where you are overseas, perhaps Canada being an exception, Thanksgiving means absolutely nothing, Christmas in Asia doesn't have the impact that Christmas has here. So you were on your first tour in Vietnam overseas during the Christmas season.

Donovan: Mm-hmm.

Zarbock: What was that like and what did you do?

Donovan: Well, you know, we had our base camps that were American, like in the big base camp I was in at Dong Ha for instance, there were no Vietnamese inside the wire. At a lot of places they did have Vietnamese, you know, cleaning, doing various things, but our commander felt like that compromised security, which I think was a very wise decision, and he would not allow any of the Vietnamese inside our wire. So it was a very American community and so we had Christmas services and did what we could, you know, to observe Christmas, Thanksgiving, the various holidays in an American way in that American community.

Zarbock: What did that feel like to you?

Donovan: Lonely. I remember I think it was Christmas, Christmas Eve, Christmas day, something, at nighttime the guys were celebrating by shooting off flares and things of that sort, you know, it was kind of like watching fireworks, you know, and I thought, "Well, they'd rather be home and so would I." (laughs) But we did, you know, the best we could.

Zarbock: Yeah. Chaplain, upon your return from your second tour of Vietnam, where were you assigned and what were your duties?

Donovan: I was assigned to an air defense unit at Fort Bliss, Texas, which is in El Paso and had two offices, one at Fort Bliss and one at McGregor Range, which was where they shot off missiles, you know, during training, I was only there for a few months and they moved me, my unit moved to Homestead Air Force Base in Miami, Florida and so they moved me to Miami and I was a battalion chaplain there, unit chaplain working with soldiers for three years and I had been reluctant to go there because I liked El Paso, I was kind of hoping to stay there, but when I got to Homestead Air Force Base, got to Miami, I thought, "This is really pretty nice." I bought a house there and I think that turned out to be my favorite assignment in the Army because of the people, because of the location partially, palm trees and flowers and it was gorgeous, but also there was a major who was our operations officer, J.R. Gunnels, G-U-N-N-E-L-S, and J.R. was just absolutely a marvelous guy. I was the chaplain but I think he was the spiritual leaders in that battalion, not spiritual in a religious sense, but he was the spirit of that battalion.

Zarbock: He was not a chaplain?

Donovan: He was not a chaplain, he was in artillery, air defense, but what he did was to build a sense of community in that unit and we were really wired tight, we really loved each other. I'm still in contact with some of the people from that era, you know, from the early 70s, which was a very long time ago, 25 years ago, 35, 35 years ago, oh my.

Zarbock: How about 38?

Donovan: Thirty-eight? Yeah. Anyway.

Zarbock: And rising.

Donovan: And rising, that's right. But we had four tactical sites at various points around the compass and I spent a lot of time going out to those sites working with soldiers, talking to soldiers.

Zarbock: What were the problems brought to you by the troops?

Donovan: Well, there were a variety. Some of them were marital problems, some of them were people who were having difficulty figuring out, you know, what to do about a particular situation. Some of then were people who were upset with being in the Army or being in Miami or their first sergeant or whatever, and it was just a matter of trying to help people work through some of those problems.

Zarbock: Were drugs and alcohol a problem?

Donovan: Not there very much. They were a terrible problem in my second assignment in Vietnam. In 1971 in Vietnam, heroin was very predominant. In fact, in that second tour, they moved me in the middle of that tour to be a staff person in a drug rehab center for heroin addicts, so I spent the last six months of that assignment working with heroin addicts, and that was very difficult. But I learned a lot, you know.

Zarbock: So there was a difference in troop activity in tour number one for you and tour number two?

Donovan: In tour number one, there was a rare occasion when somebody'd get caught with marijuana and tour number two, the official estimates were five to ten percent hooked on heroin and our unofficial estimates were 15 to 20 percent.

(End of Donovan Part 1 Tape Change)

Zarbock: Tape number two, Chaplain Donovan, 2 May 2008, Kansas City, Missouri, as you were saying, Chaplain.

Donovan: Well, I was going to tell you a couple of soldier stories. I-- one of them came out of my first tour in Vietnam, and we had units-- we had some self propelled 105s, but they had a-- they were on a tracked chassis. They could move with the infantry. So they sent those guys out to what's called the Ashau Valley, A-s-h-a-u. The Ashau Valley was a very dangerous place near the Laotian border, and so while our guys were out there I flew out there to visit them. Most of the time I-- in that first tour I got around by jeep, but there was no way to get to the Ashau by jeep, so I would fly out there to visit those guys and have services with them. And when I went out there, there was this young man that very often came to my services back at the base camp and when I saw him he had stubble on his face and he was looking kind of grimy, and I kind of kidded him about that, you know. And so half an hour later I had my services, and so this guy showed up all freshly shaven and cleaned up, you know, I kind of-- I kidded him a little about it. And so I had the services out there, went back to Dong Hoang, did my thing for two or three days, and then we got a call that there had been a friendly fire incident out at the-- in the Ashau, and it turned out this young man was killed as one of the three or four guys that were killed, and I went out to have memorial services. And, you know, that was 39 years ago and I still remember his fresh, freshly shaved cleaned up face coming to chapel services, and I still feel bad because I feel like, you know, the young man would have made a wonderful husband to some woman, a wonderful father to some kids, a wonderful member of the community, but it's gone, you know. The other soldier story comes out of my time in Miami at Homestead Air Force Base. My brigade chaplain came along at some point and said, "We've got some money for a religious retreat that you could use." He said, "If we don't use it by a certain date, why, it'll disappear on us and so do you want it?" I said, "Well, sure." And so the particular kind of money that I had access to I could use for certain things like renting rooms and that sort of thing, could not use it for food. So I talked to the Air Force chaplain on the base, a real good guy, and I said, "You know, I can pay for rooms with my money and with your chaplain's fund you can pay for food. Why don't we get together and have a combined retreat?" And so he said, "Sure." So we did that. And we had probably 20-30 people come. My assistant and I, in preparation for this, went down to the-- got in the staff car, air conditioned staff car, how can you beat that, and went down to the Florida Keys, driving down there looking for a nice motel, you know, where we could have-- and I forget exactly which key it was, but we found a nice hotel right on the beach. They had their own private beach and two or three swimming pools and really, really nice. And it was off season. It was in the summer time. And so I said, "You know, we need 20 rooms, or whatever it was, and what kind of a deal, this is for a religious retreat, what kind of deal can you make me?" And they said, "Well, we can give you those rooms for $25 dollars apiece." And, of course, $25 dollars then was more than what it is now, but that was still a pretty good deal. So I rented a block of rooms and got some picture postcards. They had picture postcards of their swimming pools and their beach, and made a little poster and went back and told our guys, "You know, we're going to have this religious retreat," and I think we asked them for a donation of $5 dollars or $10 dollars, just enough that they'd have some-- they'd have something in it, you know, so they'd show up. And so one of the guys, new guys in the unit came over, I'd never even seen him before. And so he looked at those pictures and he said, "Could I come to this retreat?" And I said, "Sure." And he said, "Could I bring my wife?" I said, "Sure." And so he couldn't believe it, you know, because it was one of those things that really was too good to be true. And so...

Zarbock: You're talking about a free lunch.

Donovan: I'm talking about a free weekend in a resort hotel, you know, so, Pete and Carol, Pete and Carol King. And so, you know, we had time to swim. We had fun and we had times when we sat around and talked about spiritual things. And so, like I say, there were 20 or 30 of us and we-- we had our own conference room. We had our own private pool. It was wonderful. And so we were sitting around in this circle in this conference room which adjoined the pool and talking about some kind of spiritual things. And Pete finally, first time he'd said anything, he said, "You know," he said, "I have a real problem believing in this stuff." He said, "My grandmother is a really, really devout Christian." He said, "She's one of the most wonderful people I know, he said, "but she has had a really hard life." And he said, "I just can't reconcile that." He said, "How can God, if there is a God, allow my grandmother to have such a hard life when she is such a fine person?" And so we had 20-30 people sitting in that circle kind of looking at our shoes trying to figure out the answer to that one, you know. And one of the young enlisted Air Force guys said, "Pete, tell me about your grandmother. Is she a happy person?" And Pete said, "Yeah, she is. She's just a wonderful person, and yeah, I'd say she's very happy." And this guy said, "Well, maybe that's the answer." And it was like the light went on, you know, and that's what Pete needed to hear that God hadn't spared his grandmother, you know, difficulties, but he had enabled her to be happy in the midst of them. And as a result of that retreat experience both Pete and Carol became Christians, and the next thing I knew they were running Bible studies in their apartment, and a few months down the road Pete came in to see me and he said, "I would like to become a chaplain's assistant." And he was, you know, he worked out at the tactical site with the Air Defense. And I said, "Pete, you know the Army is-- once they've trained you they won't really let you move like that." I said, "The only way that I know of that you can change your MOS, your Military Occupational Specialty, would be reenlist for being, you know, in-- with the condition being that they would make you a chaplain's assistant," but I said, "you know, I strongly advise against that unless you really feel called to do that, unless you're willing to pay the price and to stay in the Army an additional however many years. I'm not trying to pull you into that." And he-- the next thing I knew he reenlisted. And, you know, I went from Miami after-- my next assignment after Miami was the advanced course at the chaplain's school. Pete and I ended up at the chaplain's school together. He was in the enlisted training for being a chaplain's assistant and I was in the advanced chaplain's course. So I've always felt good about that, you know, and I've tried to-- I've tried to find him on the internet and I haven't been able to locate him, you know, but that was special.

Zarbock: I'm going to horn in on another question that I-- on another question. It's the question that I've asked all the other people whom I've interviewed. Excuse me. At any time during your career, Chaplain, were you ever ordered, was it ever suggested, or was it as low level as a subtle wink and a nod that you do something that was in violation of your personal ethic or, in fact, military regulations?

Donovan: Yeah, on one occasion. I was, again, the custodian of a chaplain's fund. I won't tell you where it was, but the chaplains who were in charge of that fund, they had a meeting and we had a bad situation because there had been a speaker at an official event and we was supposed to be paid by another venue, but that didn't work out. They were trying to figure out how to pay him, and so they decided to pay him from the chaplain's fund. And the way that's supposed to work is that you get permission to make the payment before the event takes place, but the event had already taken place. And so they passed, this board passed the motion to go ahead and pay them and to backdate the thing and so on and so forth. So I went to the person, the chaplain in charge after the fact then and I said, "You know, this is against regulations." And I said, "What I want to do is pay the guy out of my pocket." But I said, "What I want is out of this job." I said, "I will not serve in this kind of position when I am going to be asked to do things that are against regulations." And so this senior chaplain, very senior chaplain, he said, "Well, what about this, what about that?" I said, "No." I said, "This is against regulations." I said, "It could cause me trouble. It could cause you trouble." I said, "I'm not going to do it." And I said, "I'll pay-- I'll pay this one, but I'm not going to pay any more and I'm not going to do this again. I just want out of the job." And he said, "No, I'm not going to let you out of the job." He said, "We need somebody that will hold our feet to the fire." He said, "So I'll take care of this one." So he took care of it, and.

Zarbock: Good leadership.

Donovan: Yeah. So it worked out well.

Zarbock: Good leadership.

Donovan: Yeah.

Zarbock: I like to have an honest man close to me. That's good.

Donovan: Yeah.

Zarbock: Well, how did you pick up a wife in all of this frenetic activity that you found yourself?

Donovan: Well, after the advanced course-- while I was in Miami I picked up an MBA by going to school nights and weekends. And when I got to the chaplain's school one of the key people at the chaplain's school was a lieutenant colonel chaplain who had been a much more junior chaplain at Ft. Riley, my first assignment in the Army. And he and I had played handball together. He was a catholic priest, and he had visited me one time in Miami when he came down with his mother for a vacation. And I told him about being in this MBA program. Well, the Army had sent him to school to get an MBA, and so he understood the value of that for the chaplaincy, and so he was impressed that I was doing this nights and weekends. And so he was my sponsor when I went to the chaplain school to the advanced course. And he pulled me into his office and said, "You know, after you finish the advanced course what would you think about staying on as a member of the faculty?" And I said, "Well, I don't think that would work very well." I said, "You know, you've got all these specially trained guys here, water walkers," and I said, "I'm not-- I'm just an ordinary guy." He said, "Well, once you've been here for a while you'll find out they're pretty ordinary too," and-- which turned out to be very true. And so after about six months-- I was dating girls in New York City. I was-- I went to Marble Collegiate Church to a big young adult group they had there, and...

Zarbock: I'm sorry, what was the name?

Donovan: Marble, M-a-r-b-l-e, Collegiate C-o-l-l-e-g-i-a-t-e, Marble Collegiate Church. It's where Norman Vincent Peale was the minister. And so I was meeting girls there. I was dating girls, and so along about February I was in love with this very attractive blonde, you know, so I went back to my friend and I said, "You know, I've changed my mind. I think I'd like to stay here." The blonde didn't last very long, but I ended up on the faculty. The-- my friend went to the commandant and made that happen. So I stayed on the faculty, or went to the faculty that following year, and they put me into a management kind of job, gave me a course that they were trying to develop for Reserve Component chaplains. In the early stages of development they made me the course developer. They said develop it and begin to implement it and you're, you know, you're in charge. And it was a-- it was a large responsibility, a very significant responsibility. So I stayed there for four years and did that. And so that enabled me to stay in New York City. And I moved from Marble Collegiate Church to a Methodist Church, Yorktown, up on 86th Street. The girls were a little more interesting up there. And that's where I met my wife. I was very heavily involved in what I would call a young adult ministry at this Methodist Church, Park Avenue Methodist Church, running retreats and various things.

Zarbock: What was your rank in the military at that time?

Donovan: At that time I was a major. I was-- there were 44 chaplains on the faculty at the chaplain school. A half a dozen of them were colonels, I think, 22 of them were lieutenant colonels, and the rest were majors, and I was the junior major, but because of my friend I had a very significant responsibility. It was a great assignment. And something I found there, you know, I told you earlier that I had never felt very comfortable being the pastor of a congregation. What I found that I really, really loved was working with chaplains in training kinds of situations or in other situations where I could facilitate their ministry. I turned out to be good at that and I really liked it. And so I ended up doing that sort of thing four years at the chaplain school, and then my next assignment was in what was called the Chaplain Board where I was the Army's Homiletics Officer. Homiletics is a technical word for preaching. The Army sent me to Princeton for a year to study preaching. And then they put me in this job. I learned so much about preaching, and it was-- it was really transformational for me. Both the time that I had at Princeton and also in that four years I was working at the homiletics officer I would contract with seminary professors to conduct workshops for military chaplains around the country and to some extent overseas. And where I could I would go to these workshops and I think I learned as much from these guys as I did at Princeton. And it was just absolutely a wonderful assignment. And I had another assignment at the same time. I was dual, what they call dual headed. I was the editor of something called The Military Chaplain's Review which was a professional journal for military chaplains, the only thing of its kind. The Army produced it but the Air Force and the Navy bought it. The Canadian chaplains bought it. The Australian chaplains bought it. We, you know, it had very wide distribution. And so those were-- that was my next favorite assignment in the Army. I loved doing that. And that set the stage for what I'm doing in retirement, which is I'm publishing something that I call Sermon Writer which is a sermon helps kind of thing for preachers who use what's called the lectionary, l-e-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y, which is a three year cycle of scripture readings. And I got the foundation for being able to do that from my work at the chaplain board as a homiletics officer. So it really provided the platform kind of for the rest of my life.

Zarbock: Chaplain, in conclusion I'm going to ask you to comment on something. Looking back on your youth and childhood, and coming of age, and working three jobs at the same time, the doubts that you've had, and the successes, and the lonesomeness that you felt, what would you like chiseled on a marble wall with your name, to begin with, and underneath that your credo and the things that you've learned .

Donovan: Oh gosh. You know, I'm not sure how to phrase it. I guess the way I would kind of sum up my life is, you know, I did my best. And sometimes it was pretty good and sometimes it wasn't, you know. I very often found myself wishing that I could go back and relive it knowing what I know now, because I sure could have done it better, you know, but you just get a chance to do it once, you know. And so I did what I could, and sometimes, like I say, it was pretty good and sometimes it wasn't.

Zarbock: Thank you, Chaplain.

Donovan: My pleasure. #### End of Donovan Part 2 ####

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