Her feet never touched the ground. So, technically, Brenda Dearborn never served in Vietnam.

But for one day in February 1975 – two months before the fall of Saigon – Dearborn manned a machine gun on the back of a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane and scanned the jungle surrounding an airfield in South Vietnam.

Fresh out of Air Force police training school, Dearborn had volunteered for a security detail on a mission to airlift refugees who had worked with American forces. The massive plane took off from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, refueled at Travis Air Force Base in California, then landed on an airfield somewhere near Saigon.

GARDINER, ME – OCTOBER 11: Air Force veteran Brenda Dearborn, photographed at her Gardiner home on Thursday, October 11, 2018. (Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)

The tailgate lowered and Dearborn took her position, sitting on the left side of the ramp, her arms wrapped around an M60 machine gun. It was hot and hazy and eerily quiet as several hundred people filed past her, into the plane. Other airlifts had been attacked by enemy troops.

“I sat facing the jungle, waiting to shoot anything that moved,” said Dearborn, 62. “Those people were going to be killed, so we needed to get them out of there. Our mission was to protect that aircraft.”

The plane was on the ground for about 24 hours, but she never left it. The airlift was completed without shots being fired. One of eight security personnel on the four-day mission, Dearborn was the only female soldier on the plane, and one of only four women on the security staff at Dover. She never flew another security mission to Vietnam.

Dearborn, formerly Fetterly, grew up in a large family in Rockville, Maryland. She enlisted on a whim after a high school guidance counselor pressed her to decide what she was going to do after graduation. Her father, a machinist with the National Institutes of Health, wasn’t happy about it.

“He told me to pack my bags and get out,” Dearborn said. “He had a low opinion of women in the military. He eventually came around. He gave me a set of luggage for graduation and told me he was proud of me.”

Brenda Dearborn never made much of her service, but that’s starting to change. She’s now commander of an American Legion Post in Richmond.

Dearborn followed in the footsteps of two brothers who served in Vietnam. When she enlisted, she hoped to one day become a civilian police officer. That dream was destroyed in July 1980, when she was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

President Jimmy Carter was scheduled for a pre-dawn landing to begin a backcountry fishing trip. She was in the guard house at the main gate, checking press credentials. A drunken driver hit the guard house at high speed and pushed Dearborn 110 yards down the road, leaving her with severe head and leg injuries.

“I went back to work with my leg in a cast and a black-and-blue face,” Dearborn said. “I wanted to be an Alaska state trooper, but after the accident, I wasn’t physically fit to do law enforcement anywhere. I still relive the accident every night. I have a hard time driving at night because I’m triggered by headlights.”

Dearborn left active duty in 1982 as a sergeant and served in the Air National Guard and Reserves through 1992, retiring as a staff sergeant. She moved to Maine in 2001 with her husband, Lester, a Richmond native who is a veterans’ advocate with the Veterans Administration at Togus.

Her experience with trauma in the military gives her some insight into what her son, Jason Dearborn, a nine-year Navy veteran, went through while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s why she can’t watch war movies or documentaries from the Vietnam era and more recent conflcits.

“He saw his best friends get killed,” Dearborn said. “It’s been hard for him. This war is not like any war we’ve ever experienced.”

Dearborn said she’s proud that her son served his country, and she’s proud of her own service, though she hasn’t made much of it over the years. That’s starting to change. She’s commander of American Legion Post 132 in Richmond, where state officials recently held an event to honor Vietnam veterans.

“Vietnam wasn’t a popular war,” Dearborn said. “You didn’t brag about what you did. But I am proud of what I did. I wanted to do my part. I did what I had to do.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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Twitter: KelleyBouchard

Correction: This story was updated at 2:45 on Nov. 11, 2018, to reflect the correct service branch of Dearborn’s son. 

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