Three hundred sixty-four days, that’s how long Darlene Harrington was “in country.” The Army Nurse Corps veteran left Vietnam in July 1968. In the half-century since, she hasn’t put to rest the memories.
“I turned 23 in Vietnam — and I was old. Lots of my patients were younger, 18 and 19,” said Harrington, who’s now 74. “The memories are vivid.”
In the Snohomish home where she’s lived for 40 years, Harrington traced her journey to war and back. A 1963 graduate of Snohomish High School, by 1966 she had finished her training at Everett General Hospital School of Nursing.
As Darlene Wolfe, her maiden name, she was commissioned as an officer in the Army Nurse Corps in early 1967. After training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, orders came to report to Vietnam.
She was assigned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh Post, where her housing was called a hooch. With some 60,000 personnel by 1969, the post was the largest U.S. Army base during the Vietnam War.
Part of her duty was treating patients who’d suffered maxillofacial injuries, common due to high-velocity missiles used in Vietnam. She worked with men who’d lost parts of their faces and pieces of bone. “I’d teach them to talk,” said Harrington, recalling how she helped soldiers with jaws wired shut.
She was there during the Tet Offensive of early 1968, when U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties as the North Vietnamese carried out surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam. By February ’68, as the U.S. death toll rose to more than 500 a week, she had experienced real fear.
In a Herald article by Sharon Salyer in 1993, 25 years after her Vietnam duty, Harrington described the Tet Offensive attack on Long Binh, which happened Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1968.
At first, she heard small arms fire, then the base’s large ammunition stocks exploded. Explosive charges smuggled on base by the Viet Cong were detonating the ammo. Soldiers strapped on helmets and ran for bunkers, but Harrington’s bunker had collapsed.
As she waited in her hooch for orders, gunfire from the Viet Cong was “getting closer and closer,” she said in 1993. She spent that night sandwiched between two mattresses, but said “there wasn’t a lot of sleep going on.”
The next morning, she heard news that the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon had been attacked, and that U.S. Marines were battling there. Harrington said her reaction was “I want to go home.”
It would be months before she’d return to Snohomish, a first lieutenant by then.
On duty, she’d hear the unmistakable “wap, wap, wap” of a “Huey” helicopter coming in with a load of wounded. “They brought them in eight at a time,” she said Thursday. She feels fortunate she witnessed the deaths of just two Americans, but is certain that some she treated died after being transferred to other hospitals.
“We sent patients to Saigon, and they were flown to Japan,” said Harrington, who accompanied one busload of wounded men from Long Binh to what was then South Vietnam’s capital. “Many of them probably didn’t make it all the way home.”
Heartbreaking and at times terrifying, her tour in Vietnam was also exciting for a young woman born and raised in Snohomish.
She was in the crowd when Bob Hope’s USO Christmas show came to Long Binh in 1967. Actor Charlton Heston visited patients there. With her nurse friend, Judy Curry, she took a trip while on leave to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she recalls dining at a fancy restaurant and visiting a zoo.
More than all that, Harrington remembers the appreciation shown by patients, who in homesickness and pain “made us feel pretty in combat boots and fatigues.”
Back home, a first marriage ended in divorce. Harrington earned captain’s bars while serving with the Army Reserve. She worked at the 50th General Hospital at Fort Lawton.
She and her husband, Buzz Harrington, raised a blended family and have been married 36 years. As a civilian, Darlene worked two decades at a Snohomish medical clinic. She retired 10 years ago.
They’re into motorcycles, and have turned back the clock by camping with muzzleloader groups.
Today, Harrington struggles with Parkinson’s disease. Because of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, she said she’s eligible for federal veterans disability compensation and health care. There are other reminders of her service so long ago.
“Over the years,” she said, “I’ve had many vets say ‘You were in ’Nam, can I talk to you? I know I can tell you anything.’”
Harrington’s younger brother, Otis Wolfe, is commander of the Snohomish VFW Post 921. A Navy veteran, he was a hull tech aboard the USS Sterett near the end of the Vietnam War. In August, he shared his wartime experiences with the Library of Congress through a Veterans History Project event at the Everett Public Library.
As for Harrington, she hasn’t gone to Army Nurse Corps reunions. She isn’t active in veterans groups. She has represented nurses when traveling versions of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall have come to Snohomish County. Those names on the wall — more than 58,000 of them — mean everything to her.
On Monday, her Veterans Day tribute will be personal.
“I’ll drive by the G.A.R. Cemetery, take a deep breath, and drive on,” she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.