Veteran’s Day was this week and it was another good day to reflect on my time in the service so long ago. Nowadays, there are a lot of businesses who offer various specials to honor Veteran’s Day and this year was no exception. I always feel a touch guilty when I take advantage of those specials as I only served for four years – more than 20 years ago – and even then I never fought in a war. I don’t feel like I really deserve the same praise as people like my father do, because they fought and sacrificed in ways I’ll never be able to properly imagine.
But, I am honored by the things people say and do for me. This year was a little more emotional for me though. The reason why has to do with a man who I served with so long ago.
In my blogging and various writings, I’ve mentioned him before but not in super great detail. His name was Robert Bowens (or Bob) and he was one of the first Marines I met once I was assigned to my first duty station, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.
I had come to Camp LeJeune from Camp Johnson, North Carolina, which is not very far at all. I had gone to Camp Johnson to be trained in my position as Administrative Clerk. After I completed my training I was then ordered to go to Camp LeJeune and serve in the Headquarters Battalion of 2nd Marine Division.
I was understandably nervous my first day there. I’d been through a lot already since joining the Marines. I’d survived Boot Camp which even now, twenty-six years later still serves as one of the toughest things I’d ever done. Then I went to admin school and essentially learned a trade. And now, I was going to be finally doing the job for real.
But, I was still 18. I didn’t feel like an adult. I felt like a little kid in big kid’s clothing. I was sure I would look that way to everyone too.
When I walked into the office where I would serve, Bob was one of the first people I met, like I mentioned before. I didn’t know him as Bob at the time, he was Sgt. Bowens to me. Despite the fact that there was a significant difference in rank, he put me at ease almost right away.
Sgt. Bowens was one of the friendliest, most affable Marines I’d ever met in my few short months of being a Marine. I can still hear his laugh today and it makes me smile. He welcomed me to the office and put me in front of the desk where I’d be working.
As silly as it may sound, I had a pretty visible reaction to having a desk. It made me feel really grown up. Which I know now is probably pretty ridiculous. Sgt. Bowens took it in stride, he didn’t make me feel stupid at all.
Time progressed but within a short period of time, things changed drastically for me. I was moved into a different position and would be working as an administrative assistant for the Naval chaplain of 2nd Marine Division.
This meant, I wouldn’t be working with Sgt. Bowens anymore but we all lived in the same barracks and so I saw him often. We quickly became friends. Another friend of mine, Herb Middlemass hung out with us as well, as did a friend of Bob’s, Dan (or Don? I can’t remember anymore.) Rose.
We spent a lot of time doing what most young people do, in college or in the military. We partied. A lot. I’m not sure how I feel about that now, a lot of time has passed, but it’s what we did. The Marines worked us hard, but when we were off, we partied hard.
It wasn’t too long before Bob had gotten out of the Marines, but still would come to the base and hang out with us from time to time. This is when I learned something about Bob that I hadn’t expected. He was gay.
Keep in mind, that this was in the late 1980’s. Things were WAY different than they are now. This was prior to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ times of the Clinton years and so what this meant is that Bob had to keep his homosexuality a secret while he was in the Marine Corp or he would have been dishonorably discharged.
As far as how I felt about it? I didn’t really have a strong reaction to it one way or another. He was gay. I was not. I’ve been taught from my faith that homosexuality is a sin but I’ve also been taught that it’s not my place to judge. I’m not perfect at that, but with Bob, I just really didn’t care. He was Bob. He was my friend.
But, I worried about Bob. He had other problems in his life that I could see were having an affect on him. He drank too much. Way, way too much. He also had some issues with drugs. I was pretty young and I just simply didn’t have the experience or maturity to help him with that, if he’d even wanted my help.
It didn’t help that I also drank. I didn’t drink at the level he did, but I did drink and so that meant that when we were together, we were usually partying. My 21st birthday party was no exception.
We had rented out a cabana at the beach at Camp LeJeune and had invited everybody I knew and several more that I didn’t. People were coming into this party all night long, it’s a wonder someone didn’t get arrested as things got a bit rowdy. Truth be told though, I think the Marines has an expectation of rowdiness with their soldiers, so who knows.
Anyway, the next day it was just my core group of friends, which included Herb and Bob and a few others. Bob had been drinking all morning and had decided to go to the main part of the beach. He’d walked into one of the buildings and upstairs to where they were playing “The Electric Slide”, a song that was pretty popular at the time. I had followed him.
I am a pretty bad dancer and even with the song having a specific way to dance to it, I looked pretty stupid. I stopped and watched him instead. Bob had issues, but one thing he could do is dance. I remember smiling, thinking how happy he looked, just being Bob.
After awhile we had gone downstairs and I lost track of Bob for a second. When I turned around, I found him surrounded by several Recon Marines. They looked threatening and Bob looked mad. “Aw, crap!” I thought running to him.
These Marines had correctly determined that Bob was gay, more than likely by the way he was dancing. They were saying things to him that I won’t repeat here and he was responding back in kind. I grabbed his arm, “Bob, dude, let’s go.” I tried to tell him.
One of the Recon Marines looked at me and said, “Don’t touch him, you might get something!”
I don’t remember what I said that day. Probably something like “He’s my friend, leave him alone!” Who knows. All I know was he made me mad, I yelled something at him and I thankfully survived. Recon Marines are not known for their weaknesses.
Not long after that, I received orders for Okinawa and I left Camp LeJeune for the last time. I wrote Bob some and when I got out of the Marines, I even spoke to him a couple times on the phone.
Unfortunately, as often happens, I lost contact with him. I’d tried to look him up several times but couldn’t find him.
As the internet grew in popularity and use, I would occasionally plug his name into a search and see if I could find him. I never had any success. I had a bad feeling he might not be alive, but I could never find out one way or another.
That is until about two weeks ago. I’d been thinking about him again and I plugged his name into Google once more. I found an obituary for a Robert Lyndell Bowens of Newport News, VA. He had died after fighting a long illness at a friend of his home, whose last name was Rose. He served in the Marines during the time that my friend Bob did.
It was him. I know this. I knew Bob was from Newport News, his friend’s last name was Rose, just like Sgt. Rose from the Marines and it showed that this Robert served in the Marines too. It’s him.
The problem? He died 18 years ago. That hit me harder than anything. He died four years after I got out of the Marines and I didn’t know. I had not gotten a chance to mourn him.
How do you mourn someone who’s been dead almost two decades? Someone I know told me that for me he hasn’t been dead for 18 years, he’s been dead for 2 weeks. That may be why it’s hitting me so hard.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d kept in touch with him. He struggled with so much in his life. I’m not sure I was ever smart enough to help him with any of it. And sometimes, people just don’t want to be helped.
All I know was that this man took a fresh-faced kid from the Midwest and welcomed him into a scary part of his life. He became my friend when I needed one. I will always think of him with great fondness. I wish I had been with him at the end.
I was friends with Robert Lyndell Bowens. His life, as tough as it might have been, mattered. He mattered to me. And I will miss him.