Gary Harlan

About the Author

Once upon a time, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War had the ambition of someday becoming a philosophy professor. His first step toward that goal was Sonoma State University, where he wrote a bachelor’s thesis on Heidegger’s Being and Time. Next, the University of Wyoming, where he had the opportunity to teach beginning philosophy classes while earning his master’s degree. Though his appreciation of philosophy grew, his career ambition diminished upon discovering he was uniquely unqualified to teach philosophy to undergraduates, a challenge he likened to teaching Beethoven to a rock. Nevertheless, he applied to, and was accepted into, the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Arizona. While the experience broadened his understanding of the discipline, it also yielded a life-changing realization: he did not fit into the academic world. Thus, he left the university in pursuit of what he regarded at the time as a “real world confrontation.”

Yes, I was that Marine veteran who left the desert and returned to the Ozarks. I have been a postal clerk, house painter, coordinator of a Vietnam veterans outreach center, woodworker, wedding photographer, operator for the answering service owned and operated by my fourth and final wife, and a wine salesman–all of which were means by which to pay the rent and put food on the table. As for survival–the basic kind of survival–there has been one activity that has kept me alive: writing.

The reason I did not fit into the academic world can be summed up in two words: the war. From the day my Marine Corps enlistment ended, I was determined to leave the war behind, to become a new person with a new identity. A year after leaving academia, I attempted to accomplish that by getting it all over and done with by writing a six-page magazine article about my war and postwar experience. That was my intention anyway. The editor must have known better, considering he titled my piece, “He’s Still Leaving the War Behind.”   

That magazine piece was not my last word on the subject. In fact, it turned out to be the beginning of a new phase of the war in that it drew the attention of a disabled Army veteran who persuaded me to join him in organizing Vietnam vets in the Ozarks. Our efforts led to the establishment of the Ozarks Vets Center in Springfield, Missouri, the only full-service, privately funded vets center of its kind in the country. I intend to include the Vets Center story in my blog because it stands as an amazing example of what people can achieve in the way of self-help without government involvement.

 The entire time I worked at the Vets Center I never saw myself as a veteran in need of rehabilitation. As media spokesman for the Center, I made frequent appearances on local television, dressed in a suit, discussing veteran-related issues, explaining the services we offered, events we had planned, and so forth. I served the interests of our veteran clients and their families, but I was not one of the guys suffering from PTSD. I was just the existential cowboy who self-medicated on marijuana all day and considered suicide a viable option. That ego-driven self-image finally collapsed with the collapse of my third marriage.  

In 2017 I informed my lifelong friend Patrick that I intended to write a book about the war, and did he have any advice. His reply:

“You know Gary, this book has been in your head ever since I met you. Call it what you want – a novel, a play, a film – whatever, but it has been there. It has caused you nightmares, solidified friendships, broken up others, and I am amazed it has not caused you ulcers. The outline has probably taken different forms, but it, too, is there. It’s at your most honest self. Getting there, to your honest voice, is one of the hardest things to do. You have done it, off and on, over your life, but putting it together over chapters of memories and meaningful experiences will take work, and more than a bit of anguish. One thing I know to be true is you must try to get outside of your ego to get to your own true voice. You have to peel back the academics, the buffers we all build to shield ourselves from others, the stuff we create that dilutes our souls.”

It’s nice to have friends like that. I’ve done my best to follow his advice. And you know what? I intend to continue doing so as long as I’m alive and able.

Consider this site the home of Gary Harlan, in which a variety of topics will be discussed—from dogs to death and dying, politics to popular culture—you name it. And since there will be a space for comments, I encourage you to bring your own honest voice to the table and join me in an ongoing dialog. To participate, add your name to the mailing list.

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