“If you want to know what fighting in Vietnam was like up close and personal, Gary Harlan tells it like it really was. His philosophy borne from those experiences is profound and well worth reading and considering.” Frederick W. Smith, CEO FedEx Corporation, USMC ’66-‘70
A U.S. Army general once remarked, “There are two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion.” The truth of that statement is what inspired this two-tour Marine sergeant to embark on a journey that began with a cross-country road trip in which he visited the homes of Marines and Navy Corpsmen with whom he had served alongside in combat, and ended back in Vietnam meeting Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers they had fought a half-century earlier.
Leaving his rural home in the Ozarks, Gary Harlan drove first to Boston where he attended the Semper Fi Society’s annual Marine Corps birthday luncheon. He had the honor of meeting the keynote speaker, General Joseph F. Dunford, the 36th Commandant of the Marine Corps who was currently serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general asked Harlan what outfit he served with in Vietnam. When Harlan informed him that his first tour was with the 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, the General replied, “3/1 was the first unit I served with.” Just as Harlan was about to return to his table, General Dunford said, “I’m proud to have followed in your footsteps.” It was a remarkable, if not surreal way to commence the two-month road trip.
Harlan expected to meet men, including doctors, lawyers, and successful businessmen, who had “moved on,” men for whom the war was no longer particularly relevant. He could not have been more mistaken. Everyone—from the retired prison guard in Arizona to the prominent surgeon in California—was quite adamant about one thing: They considered their service in Vietnam as their proudest achievement. Always Faithful: Returning to Vietnam tells their stories of war and its impact in their own words.
It also honors the memory of those who did not make it out alive. One of these men, Staff Sergeant Leonard Hultquist, was killed on Hill 50 during Operation Utah, the first operation of the war in which the Marines engaged the NVA in battle. The chapter devoted to Hultquist contains excerpts of letters he wrote to his wife Nancy, beginning in the spring of 1965 when 3/1 was organized at Camp Pendleton, up to the day the battalion made its amphibious landing in the Quang Ngai Province, and the 37 days leading up to Operation Utah. Staff Sergeant Hultquist’s last letter was written on March 5, 1966, the day he was killed.
Besides the group of 3/1 Marines and Corpsmen reconciling with their former enemy, their Vietnam trip also included working with the East Meets West Foundation to donate a water purification system to the Mac Dinh Chi School located several miles from Hill 50.
Always Faithful is also a platform from which to address issues facing America today. First and foremost, the alarming suicide rate among veterans of the War on Terror. Gary Harlan shares his own history of suicidal thoughts, rage, survivor guilt, divorces, substance abuse, and estrangement, and the path he took to overcome the effects of PTSD.
The book concludes with a critical examination of America’s two-decade history of endless wars.