Marine Bruce Harbin - Retired Captain, Flint Fire Department

There’s a slogan of remembrance passed among Vietnam Vets; they wear it on their jackets, emblazon it on bumper stickers, write it in reunion guest books:  ‘All gave some, some gave all.’

In the process of giving, vets brought back many deep and conflicting emotions.  Regardless of where and how they served, the Vietnam experience changed every man and woman who lived it.

For Bruce Harbin, much to his surprise, he discovered that upon his return from his tour, he faced civilian life completely devoid of fear.

“Somewhere along the way in Vietnam, I’d lost my fear factor.  Everything in life seemed simpler to handle than it had before.  That’s not always good—there were some things I did that I should have been afraid of…”

The rest of Harbin’s story is somewhat typical of a young man in 1966 Michigan: having graduated from Flint Southwestern High School without a driving need for college, he lived for a while in limbo as he waited for a draft notice.  Tired of that, he enlisted in the Marines.  After basic, he was assigned to the 5th Marines.  He began his tour of duty at Hill 29, also called Hawk Hill. 

And just in time for the TET offensive.  During this pivotal, month-long battle, Harbin’s regiment, the 5th,  received the Presidential Unit Citation for their actions.  For his part, Corporal Harbin faced death on a number of occasions, including two where his position in an offensive maneuver was replaced at the last minute by men who ended up dying in the ensuing combat.  He served thirteen months in-country and received his honorable discharge in October, 1968.

Upon returning home, Harbin’s initial goal was to pursue a career in law enforcement, as his father had done following World War II.  The elder Harbin , who retired from the Flint police force in 1972 as a Detective Lieutenant, passed away in May, 2010 and is interred at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Michigan as befits a veteran who served honorably both in Europe and the Pacific.  His son’s grief over his death at 84 is, perhaps, equaled by his pride.

Finding that he did not have the educational credentials to become a police officer, Bruce Harbin chose instead to pursue his goal of exciting work while giving back to the community by joining the Flint fire department.  It proved to be a fortuitous decision, since he remained with the department for twenty-three years, retiring as Captain in the 1990’s.  He proved as valiant as a fire fighter as had been as a soldier; during his tenure with the department, he was highly decorated, receiving awards was for his heroic life saving rescue attempts, for outstanding aggressive performance in containing a free burning fire involving a multiple unit apartment complex and for displaying great leadership and judgment in the prevention of further human suffering and total property loss at a fire situation of
great magnitude.

At the age of 47, Harbin was diagnosed with cancer directly related to his exposure to Agent Orange, the insidious defoliant used to clear jungle.  Remarkably, he is not in the least bitter, understanding that the long-term effects of the herbicide were not known.  He says, “Remember that Admiral Zumwalt’s son was a swift-boat commander under his father’s command.  The son wound up with Agent Orange related cancer and died from it.  I don’t think he would have knowingly exposed his son—or the men who served under him—to this danger had he known about it.”

Two years before his death in 1988, the younger Zumwalt said, Zumwalt's son said in 1986 that "'I am a lawyer and I don't think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems - nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems - reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is."

Harbin’s persistent optimism may play into the wonderful news that today, his cancer appears to be in remission.  “Fifteen years after the diagnosis?” he says.  “I’m blessed to be where I’m at.”

And as a nation, we are grateful for his sacrifices in uniform—both military and as a fire fighter—are blessed as well.



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