For Donaldeen “Donny” Perrich, the military has been a family affair.
Her father fought in the Navy in World War 1. Her husband served in the Army, Navy and Marines from World War II through Vietnam. Her two sons were both in the military during Vietnam. And her two grandsons served in Iraq.
On Thursday – two days after Veterans Day – this “military mom” will celebrate her 90th birthday at a Lexington assisted living facility with her family members from South Carolina, Ohio and Florida by her side.
“Many people are not aware of the sacrifices made and hardships endured by the families of active-duty military personnel,” her son Jerry said from his home in Dayton, Ohio. “She uprooted her family and moved her home about 15 times (the family can’t remember all the moves) while raising three children. As dedicated a Marine as Dad was, she was equally dedicated to him and raising us.”
Donaldeen Arthurs met Robert Perrich when the two attended high school in San Bernadino, Calif., in 1941. They were in the Thespian and Debating clubs together and he asked her out to a play. She went with him, but was slow to enter into a relationship.
“But he was persistent,” Donny said from her apartment in the Oakleaf Village in Lexington, surrounded by photos and mementos of their five decades together. Robert passed away in 1997. “He picked me. I don’t know why.
“I kept comparing him to other boys and none of them measured up,” she said with a laugh. “He was faithful in all things and he had a dedication to the country.”
Upon graduating high school in 1942, with World War II raging, Robert joined the Army. Donny went to nursing school, intending to become an Army nurse. Six months later, Robert received a highly prized appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and promptly switched services.
The war had ended by the time the two graduated in 1946. At that time, Robert had the choice of becoming a naval officer or becoming a Marine, which is a branch of the Navy. He chose the Marines and remained in the Corps for the next 32 years.
When Robert got leave to come home for the holidays in 1947, he proposed. “It was the day after Christmas,” Donny said. “We had sort of a honeymoon in San Francisco” before Robert had to go back to his posting in Guam.
During the ceremony, Robert asked that the vows be altered. “He said, ‘I pledge to you my fidelity,’” Donny said. “He knew there would be a lot of separation. And he was pledging to be faithful.”
At Guam, Marine officers were allowed to bring their wives if they had the materials and wherewithal to convert a Quonset hut – a sheet metal utility building with a semicircular cross section – into what would pass as a home. Robert, with the help of friends, secured some gray Navy paint, did the best they could, and Donny, with new baby Jerry, sailed to meet her husband and see her first home.
“I liked it,” Donny said. “Of course it was all gray and the island was red (sand) so everyone had to leave their shoes outside.”
Guam is a tropical island in the Pacific, the largest island in Micronesia. And with that came a host of critters, from scorpions to spiders.
“I hadn’t been there long when I heard things walking around on the top of the house,” Donny said. Robert said they were rats. “I said, ‘Are they wearing combat boots?’”
Over the next three decades, the family would move every two or three years – Italy; Camp Lejune, N.C.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and more – often with Robert stationed overseas – China, Korea, Vietnam.
Daughter Kathy said the family learned how to deal with it.
“I went to 12 schools in 16 years,” she said. “What was difficult was not having any long-term friends.”
“We were always either settling in, or getting ready to move again,” Jerry said. “It took its toll on family life.”
Donny and the children tried to make moving a routine, to instill normalcy as quickly as possible. They would arrive in a new home and try to get everything in place in one day.
The boys would set up their rooms, and Kathy hers. While the boys were bringing and setting up the other belongings, Donny and Kathy would get the kitchen in order.
“We had a system,” Donny said. “We wanted to be normal as quickly as we could.”
Once everything was squared away, the family would sit down for their “first night meal” – a skillet dish of ground beef and baked beans on white bread.
“We would do that every time,” Kathy said. “Remember, there weren’t McDonald’s everywhere back then.”
During the Vietnam War, while Robert was serving in Da Nang and Chu Lai, Donny was home near Camp Pendleton. Robert told her that medics sometimes weren’t allowed to treat locals because of Navy regulations regarding U.S. medical supplies. So Donny decided to contact local doctors to get samples from pharmaceutical companies and ship them overseas for the medics to use.
She doesn’t know how much medicine was collected by her and other wives, “but it was a lot. We established a pipeline.”
The program would continue after Donny had to relocate once again. “You just know what you have to do. And the senior wives have to teach the young wives.”
In 1967, after his service in Vietnam, the family moved to Parris Island, where now Lt. Col. Robert Perrich would become the commander of a battalion of recruits.
The family was together again, and it was their favorite posting. Donny liked the weather “except in the summer.” Kathy, then a teenager, liked the young Marines. “I felt like I had a thousand eyes on me,” she said.
Robert liked the duty of training Marines, considered a “nearly sacred responsibility” in the Marines, Jerry said.
“Many times Dad would get up at 3:30 a.m. to inspect mess halls to be sure they were exceeding standards – go from one to the other to cover them all,” Jerry said. “Mom would get up with him to make sure he had coffee before he left.”
Throughout their 33 years in the military, Donny said her husband never broke his vow of fidelity, although she knew many military spouses that did.
“If you’re a military wife, love your husband and be loyal to him,” she said. “The most important thing is to trust each other.”
Jerry added that the family is excited to gather for their mother’s birthday and hopes her story will highlight the efforts and sacrifices of all military wives and mothers on Veteran’s Day.
“In our old age, it’s our honor for us to take care of her,” he said.