A television ad made all the difference for Bernita Gallego Barfield.
It was the summer of 1967 and the U.S. had significantly increased its military presence in Southeast Asia because of the Vietnam War. Major U.S. cities were embroiled in race riots, anti-war protests, and widespread poverty–especially in Detroit where Bernita lived and worked at the time.
After being ordered to stay home from her advertising job in response to the growing violence in Detroit, Bernita came across an ad on her television calling on viewers to join the American Red Cross and work on military installations across the country and around the world.
Yearning for a deeper purpose in her life and wanting to make a difference during those troubling times, Bernita answered the call and became a Red Cross Assistant Field Director. Serving on military installations at home and abroad, she provided social services such as financial assistance and facilitated communications between soldiers and their loved ones.
As the war intensified, Bernita wanted to expand her impact beyond national borders and into Vietnam to support active-duty service members. She was assigned to Cam Ranh Bay in 1971, a major Army installation in Vietnam.
She recalls Christmas Day in 1971, aboard an Air Force Caribou, painted on the outside like Santa Claus and decorated on the inside. She flew to various nearby Firebases, landing to the cheers of soldiers and beaming Vietnamese children waiting for presents from Santa Claus.
In addition to the tight-knit group of Red Crossers on her team, Bernita also worked alongside “Donut Dollies,” Red Cross women who traveled by helicopters providing entertainment, comfort, and a familiar smiling face to service members. “We worked hard and played hard,” she said about her small but courageous team.
Her year in Vietnam was an emotional rollercoaster, from moments of joy and laughter to extreme sadness as she witnessed the horrors of war. As an Assistant Field Director, Bernita recounts arranging an emergency leave for an 18-year-old private after she had to inform the young man that his two-year-old brother had died.
She got through the tough times with the support of her team and a dose of humor to pass the long and exhausting days.
In 1972, Bernita completed her year of service and left Vietnam on an aircraft full of cheering soldiers. As the motors of the departing aircraft revved and the plane took off, she cried. A year’s worth of tears and mixed emotions finally bubbled to the surface–grief, relief, sadness, and celebration.
The soldiers she witnessed endured dangerous conditions and often lived in dugouts for shelter. Bernita too navigated these conditions with the Red Cross, relying on her resourcefulness, bravery, and empathy to uplift servicemen and the Vietnamese people she encountered in villages and on military installations.
Bernita’s time in Vietnam undoubtedly changed her outlook on life. She holds tremendous respect for the military community, which influenced her pursuits following that plane ride home. After leaving Vietnam, she met her husband in Germany–and found her next calling.
After the Vietnam War, veterans and civilians started to develop severe mental health issues characterized by traumatic memories of their wartime experiences. The American Psychiatric Association soon identified their condition as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which became an official mental health diagnosis in 1980. Today, it is estimated that about 30% of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD in their lifetime.
Bernita was at the forefront of supporting those suffering from the traumas of the war. In the mid-1970s, she worked at Frankfurt 97th U.S. Army General Hospital in Germany and played a key role in developing the hospital’s 30-day inpatient alcohol and drug treatment program, the first of its kind in Europe. She furthered her education and earned a master’s degree in counseling to better treat those in recovery.
When asked to sum up her Red Cross journey in a few words, Bernita paused, then smiled. “I’ve loved those that I served and served those that I loved.” She hopes that younger generations who were not around during the war can understand the turbulent time in the world and appreciate the invaluable contributions and true grit of the military.
The Red Cross helped to fulfill Bernita’s purpose, invigorated her passions for traveling and serving others, led her to find her husband, contributed to breakthroughs in the mental health field, and gave her a rewarding career in social services–all thanks to a television ad in 1967.