Valentines sealed the deal in Vietnam
It was February 1970, almost a year since the Army nurse had met the handsome helicopter pilot, with his sparkling eyes and wild streak, at Fort Knox. Both were preparing to go to Vietnam, she to tend the wounded at the 24th Evac Hospital, he to his second tour flying low over the jungle, scouting for the enemy.
He sent the Valentine card and she kept it — through their tour of duty in Vietnam and more than four decades of marriage following.
By the next Valentine’s Day, they were married. But it took months of effort and paperwork to receive permission from their respective commanders.
The Army took marriage seriously, especially when it involved two of its members. “They didn’t make it easy for spouses to serve together,” Carol noted, significantly understating the case.
The 23-year-old nurse even had to make a pledge the marriage wouldn’t produce any dependents during her remaining military commitment. At the time, the Army didn’t accept women with children, only men
They chose the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as the war zone usually was calmer during holiday periods, Carol said.
For the same reason, Bob Hope arrived to entertain the troops that weekend. “We missed Bob Hope, but we got married,” she said.
Carol, who is Catholic, and Larry, who had to pledge their children would be raised in the church, were married by an Army priest in the quonset hut housing the hospital chapel.
Wearing his dress uniform and black cavalry hat, the 26-year-old pilot stood at the altar with his best man. Carol walked down the aisle in a short white dress, white shoes and a veil her mother had sent from the U.S.
She almost went without the veil. She scorched it while trying to iron it.
“No problem,” her fellow nurses told her. They snipped off the burned part, creating a short, perky veil.
After a reception with cake, the Browns left for a honeymoon in Saigon. Or that’s what Carol told her commanding officer.
Actually, they flew 600 miles north to the DMZ, where Larry was based, a completely unauthorized detour. There, his friends gave them another reception, complete with a multi-tiered wedding cake that nearly melted in the hot, sticky monsoon weather.
His buddies initiated her into the cavalry, too, lofting her into the air while she drank a beer, then rewarding her with her own cavalry hat.
It wasn’t the first time the Browns had bent the rules so they could spend time together in Vietnam. But they weren’t unique.
“We did crazy things,” Carol said, noting, “We were young.”
Often, she said, word would go around among the nurses that there was a party happening. The young women would sneak out to a runway, where a helicopter would whisk them away to the makeshift venue.
Helicopters carrying the wounded were constantly landing and taking off from the hospital, so no one noticed a few extra flights, Carol said. And pilots were somewhat in a class by themselves, known as much for their rogue behavior as for their bravery and daring in the field.
Larry had even taken Carol with him on missions, something that would never have been officially allowed.
On one, she flew beside another pilot in a Cobra helicopter that followed Larry’s “little bird” as he scouted for the enemy. After dropping Carol off at base, the gunship and scout chopper returned to the air, and Larry was shot down.
It was a gut-wrenching time for Carol as comrades searched for her fiancé.
Larry turned up unscathed, eager to take off again. But their relationship almost ended up becoming a casualty.
“I said ‘That’s it; we’re done.’ It’s best we go our separate ways,” she recalled.
But, of course, they got back together.
Their common background in Vietnam and other military postings actually made their marriage stronger, Larry said. As a result, they share an understanding that helps them work through troubles.
Larry was born into a military family. His father was in the Navy, and he grew up wanting to fly.
He quit college so he could attend Naval flight school. But the program was canceled and he received a draft notice.
“The day I was supposed to be drafted, I volunteered to fly Army helicopters,” he said.
He made his first tour of Vietnam in 1967-68 with the 1st Squad, 9th Cavalry, then rejoined the unit in 1970. Scouting was a dangerous job, as choppers were shot down on a regular basis.
Larry did the job for a total of 23 months. He was shot down nine times, but always managed to be rescued.
Going to Vietnam was why Carol decided to join the Army in the first place.
She was in nursing school when a trio of military nurses spoke at career day.
“The Air Force and Navy nurses were old,” she said, admitting her definition of “old” meant something different then. “The Army nurse was young and just back from Vietnam, and she told us about her experiences.”
It was exciting to the young woman, who had never been far from her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Pa. She also felt the inspiration of the late Pres. John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask what you can do for your country.”
“I wanted to serve,” Carol said, so she enlisted as soon as she graduated in 1968.
“I knew I would learn so much,” she said. “They said you get 10 years experience in one year of nursing in Vietnam. And going into the military was liberating for me.”
The 24th Evac specialized in head injuries. Carol cared for patients from every branch of the U.S. military, and from other countries, as well — even North Vietnam, the enemy.
Carol, like Larry, planned to make the Army her career. “Both of us loved the military,” she said.
After Vietnam, the couple was stationed together in Germany, where she worked at the 97th General hospital in Germany.
When she found out she was pregnant, she was disappointed, as that meant she would have to leave the service. It seemed the military still banned mothers from service.
Wearing a maternity uniform and working the night shift, she continued until five days before the birth of their daughter, Kelly.
Twin boys John and Larry joined the family less than two years later.
Larry followed his parents into the Army. Now a major, he married a Black Hawk pilot.
Grandson Andrew, who lives in McMinnville, also has a military interest. He’s involved with the Naval Sea Cadets, and his proud grandfather, Larry, volunteers with the organization.
The Browns got out of the military entirely, briefly, when the Army decided to thin its ranks of pilots. Larry found a job flying helicopters for Evergreen and the family moved to McMinnville.
But both he and Carol still wanted to serve. So they joined the Oregon Army National Guard.
By that time, family care plans were the norm. Women with children could serve.
Carol was set to go to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but her unit was not called up.
In 1998, she was chosen to attend the Army War College in Pennsylvania. She spent a year in its strategy, international studies and peace programs.
Larry accompanied her as a supportive spouse. He joined the Officers’ Wives Club, becoming its first male president.
While Carol was learning military strategy, he learned home arts. He even made her a quilt as a souvenir of her war college days.
Both now retired from the Guard, Col. Larry and Col. Carol keep in touch with many of their friends from Vietnam, and from other places they served. They’ve also been to many military reunions.
A few years ago, at a reunion of helicopter pilots, some of the retirees started talking about returning to Vietnam. The Browns decided to do so — not just to remember their service there, but also to renew their wedding vows.
For their 35th anniversary, the Browns, their best man and five other close friends flew to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The Browns said their vows once again in Notre Dame Cathedral there, one of the many impressive churches that are a remnant of the French influence.
Larry stood at the altar on Nov. 28, 2005, 35 years to the day after the first wedding. Although he wasn’t in uniform this time, he did wear his black cavalry hat.
Carol wore an “ao dai,” a traditional Vietnamese gown, which she had made in burgundy — the military’s medical color.
Newly married again, they took time for sightseeing in the country that had helped shape their lives. They also brought home some souvenirs, including wine.
They still have a bottle of Vang Dalat red. Maybe they’ll pop the cork this Valentine’s Day.