After an 18-hour flight, Marine Master Sgt. Barbara Dulinsky arrived in Vietnam on March 18, 1967 at Bien Hoa Air Force Base, about 30 miles from Saigon. When she stepped off the plane, she made history, becoming the first female Marine to serve in a combat zone.

Dulinsky enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and volunteered to deploy to Vietnam in 1967, and when it was approved, spent a year there as an administrative chief with the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

Caption: A photo of Master Sgt. Barbara Dulinsky, the first female Marine to serve in a combat zone.U.S. Marine Corps photo
Caption: A photo of Master Sgt. Barbara Dulinsky, the first female Marine to serve in a combat zone.

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When Dulinsky arrived at the airfield in Vietnam, she was held overnight due to safety concerns on the unsecure roads. The next day she reported to her command in Saigon and was given a briefing on the security concerns of living in insecure billeting. The briefing included guidance on recognizing booby traps and checking cabs before entering to ensure there was a handle inside, according to “A History Of Women Marines 1946-1977.”

In a Feb. 9, 1968 letter, both wry and serious, Dulinsky described the surreal experience of living in a city teeming with danger:

“We are still on a 24-hour curfew, with all hands in utilities . . . . MACV personnel (women included) were bussed down to Koeppler compound and issued 3 pair of jungle fatigues and a pair of jungle boots. Right now, most of us don’t look the picture of ‘The New Image.’ Whew! Hardly! I can’t determine at night, if I’m pooped from the work day or from carrying around these anvils tied to my feet called combat boots. Our Young-uns (and me too inside) were scared; but you’d have been proud of them. They turned to in the mess, cashiering, washing dishes, serving and clearing tables”

“When she volunteered for Vietnam, I think the Marine Corps thought ‘mana from heaven we have our volunteer, we know her and we know how good she’ll be,’” said Nancy Wilt the curator for the Women of the Corps Collection of the Women Marines Association.

“She volunteered at a time she did not think she was going to get it,” said Wilt, who served in the Marines from 1970 to 1982. “It was pie in the sky. They finally had said in the 60s that things were opening up for women and you could put down where you wanted to go and she put down Vietnam. I think she was shocked she got it.”

Based on her research into the history of women in the Marine Corps, Wilt described Dulinsky’s decision to volunteer as a career enhancing move, and one that opened doors for female Marines at the time and in the future. Dulinsky was one of 36 female Marines to serve in Vietnam between 1967 and 1973, according to the Marine Corps History Division.

“Women were looking for career enhancing moves and she saw she could do it, and she did it,” said Wilt.

Prior to volunteering for Vietnam, Dulinsky was the senior drill instructor for female Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina, a role her friends and fellow Marines say she performed well.

Beyond her outward exterior as the tough senior enlisted Marine, Dulinsky had a softer side, said Mitzi Manning a close friend of Dulinsky and a fellow Marine, in an email to Task & Purpose. Manning said Dulinsky spent her days painting, and living on her 32-foot sailboat named “Bonnie Jean II,” with her cat, Mindy, “probably the oldest Siamese cat I ever saw at age 21.”

Dulinsky retired from the Marine Corps in 1974 and after living in San Francisco for a period of time, moved to Kent, Washington. She lived there until she passed away of natural causes in 1995. She was 66.

“Barbara epitomized the crusty senior staff NCO and had been a hard as nails drill instructor,” said Manning. “But beneath all that was one of the most intelligent and artistic women I have known in the Corps.”