In 1965, Jo Collins was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Year. The next year, at the height of the Vietnam War, the energetic Oregon native received a call from Playboy asking if she would be willing to travel overseas to visit the troops on United Service Organizations tours. At 19 years old, Collins had never left the country, but with a spirited adventurous streak, she didn’t hesitate before saying yes. Fifty-two years later, we talked to the Playmate about the life-changing, history-making experience and how she earned the nickname “G.I. Jo.” Here is Collins’ account, in her own words:

“It was over the holidays when I received a phone call from the Playboy office, stating that a Lieutenant Jack Price, of the 173rd Airborne division, had written a letter to Hugh Hefner telling him that the men in his unit had collected the money required for a lifetime subscription – but would only forward the check if Hefner promised to have Jo Collins delivered in person. Because that was in the small, fine print on the back of every Playboy magazine! If you could come up with $150, a Playmate or Bunny would personally delivery you a lifetime subscription. They never figured anyone was going to read the fine print. But these poor guys in the trenches: They had nothing else to do but read the fine print.

"Of course, Hef seeing an opportunity, I get this call when I’m home in Oregon. ‘Guess what? You’re going to Vietnam!’ To be honest, I was thinking, 'I’m going to Europe.’ I had no clue. All I knew was that my college friends were in the Army; they’d been drafted. I was basically the first private citizen allowed to visit Vietnam at that time, along with my chaperone and the photographer: the three of us on a 747.

"It happened so fast, I flew from Oregon to San Francisco. All the Bunnies were there to do a big send-off and then I was on a plane. We arrived 21 hours later in Saigon. The doors opened and there were five thousand soldiers on the runway, along with crews from ABC, NBC, CBS, the big three stations in those days. They had the microphones up to my face going, 'Jo, why are you here? Why are you here?’ And I say, 'Well, I’m here to deliver a lifetime prescription…” Naturally, that went viral. 'Haha! We know you’re what the doctor ordered, honey, but tell us why you’re here!’ [Laughs] I mean, are you kidding? Back in the States, it was, 'Well, you don’t have to be beautiful and smart.’ Of course, I meant a 'lifetime subscription.’

“The war was in the jungle. There were no boundaries. No one knew where the 'bad guys’ were because they were everywhere. I think I was too young to be scared, until they told me to get down on my stomach in the helicopter. They were shooting motar shells. We could have been blown up any time. Right after we left Saigon, the hotel we were staying in was blown up. It was really something.

"Lieutenant Jack Price had been shot in the arm, so they were getting ready to send him home. This guy would not leave Vietnam until I arrived. It just made me feel so good that these guys were so appreciative I was there. I can’t explain it. This one guy was being brought off the helicopter, stepped on a mine and was blown up. Just charred. The nurses brought me over to him and he said, 'Hi, sweetheart. I’ve been waiting for you.’ And he died. You never forget something like that.

"I was there for two weeks, moving along the Cambodian border, every day a different camp. I visited the Aussies who were fighting with us; it was a whirlwind. Then we’d go back to Saigon. I went to some of the nightclubs, but at that time it was just about as bad as it is today. They’d have little kids coming up with little bags that could have bombs in them. So you had to be really careful. But I’ve always said when your time’s up, your time’s up. I don’t care where you are.

"On a lighter note, here we were on Black Virgin Mountain, where you had to be helicoptered in. It was hysterical because in these huts, they had big refrigerators, big beer cases. Like, how did they get this stuff there? Of course, they let me shoot a mortar shell. The Viet Cong were all at the bottom of the mountain and it didn’t go over so well when it got around: 'A Playmate shooting mortar shells?’

"When I came back, the press was crazy. Every day I was there, there were articles coming out. Everyone thought it was great, except for the people who hated the war, but then again, who didn’t? No one wants a war. But it just made me feel good that I could be there as someone from home and take them away, back to a fun time for just a few minutes. Just help somebody when it may seem the darkest.

"There’s a scene in Apocalypse Now when they try to recreate my visit. I thought it sucked! They had three Playmates and me doing a stupid dance. No! [Laughs] Quite a few years later, in 1983, the 173rd was asked to come to the White House. The division was being honored as the first U.S. Army unit to see combat in Vietnam. So they finally got recognition because, you know, everyone was so against the war. At the time I said, 'I don’t care. You can all think what you think. As long as these guys are drafted, we need to support them. Right, wrong or indifferent.’ Be patriotic. Just support. So when they were asked to go to the White House, they invited me to come and asked if I would stand with them when they received their commendations. It was amazing. Jack Price paid me a special tribute, saying, 'The courage of Jo Collins will not be forgotten by the thousands of fighting men she inspired during that lonely time.’ He and I just talked about a month ago.”

Photography by Larry Gordon. Click here to see the full gallery of Collins’ trip to Vietnam.