People join the military for various reasons. Some, as noted in previous Mission to Serve columns, join because they grew up in a family with generations who served before them. Others couldn’t afford to get an education and therefore joined to receive the educational and training benefits the military offered.
This month’s column isn’t about a veteran who joined for either of those reasons. The man you’re about to meet didn’t grow up with family members whose desire was to serve in the U.S. military, and he wasn’t seeking educational benefits from any branch of service. As a matter of fact, our featured veteran never even intended to join the Army.
John E. McKowen, Sr. was one of the 2.2 million men that was drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam era. There were a few reasons men could avoid being drafted, but as a newly divorced man he became a perfect candidate for the draft. The day divorce papers were finalized was the very day he received a letter in the mail letting him know where and when to report for duty. Not thrilled by the choice that was made for his life is an understatement. With an array of emotions coupled with fear of the unknown that threatened to take him captive, he was shipped off to a new life where he would be trained to live in a volatile situation, and grudgingly leaving a broken relationship and three incredibly young children behind.
We spent some time talking about the challenges he faced in this new life and how he was able to overcome them. “Basic training was difficult to make it through mentally and physically,” he said. “I took it all as a learning process and did the best I could. I made it through bootcamp and passed all the tests even with having a 104-degree temperature.” John continued to explain how he had double phenomena and had to spend one month in the hospital before he could be released into training for his assigned Army career field.
It’s grueling enough, as any soldier knows, to get through the mental and physical strains bootcamp imposes. Doing it with double phenomena adds another level of challenge to overcome. How did he do it?
“Sheer willpower caused me to overcome.”
little did he realize then how much more he would have to learn to overcome.
After going through medical training, he was shipped off to Vietnam as a combat medic where he would see things he could never imagine witnessing. He said, “It was the most challenging experience I’ve ever had. War is a life and death situation. When in the middle of it, you just overcome.” As a combat medic in the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division – “The Big Red One”, sheer willpower got him through challenges most of us will never encounter.
After only being in for one year from being drafted, John decided to enlist into the regular Army where he served over 20 years. When asked what the most rewarding experience he had in the Army, he described a situation at Letterman General Hospital. It was here that he cared for the Vietnam amputees and open-heart surgery patients. He said, “I was on duty one night and there was an old retired soldier who kept having heart attacks. As the man was being speedily wheeled on a gurney to surgery due to cardiac arrest, I remember climbing on top of that gurney, hovering over his body and doing chest compressions in an effort to manually preserve brain function until further measures could be taken in the surgery room to restore blood circulation and breathing. He died in surgery. His wife was in the ward at the time. Out of gratitude of my attempt to keep her husband alive, she tried to give me his ring. I didn’t take it of course.”
Listening to this incredibly sad story, as well as countless other ones, it was evident as to why John didn’t take the ring. He isn’t a man motivated by reward. He’s a man motivated by compassion for people and life. He did what he did – combat medic to hospital aide – because he cared about the lives of others.
Transitioning back to civilian work was challenging. “I went from military leadership to civilian management. In the military I was committed to combat arms and was hard core. I quickly learned that hard core didn’t work as a civilian supervisor, so I had to change completely. I realized that life is vastly different in the civilian workplace and if I didn’t change, I wasn’t going to make it. It was a hard thing to do,” John recalls.
Transitioning back to civilian life was even harder. “I didn’t have a support system and I no longer had family to go back to. That disappeared over two decades ago, but I went back to my hometown anyway. Going back was hard, too hard to even put into words. My former wife was there and my three kids who I hadn’t spoken with for many years were now adults living their own lives. Through much anguish, near breakdown, and over a significant amount of time, things started to change for the better.”
As I listened intently to every word, I could hear the sorrow and regret this man held close to his heart. His vulnerability reminded me that we all have a story. Some chapters are good while other chapters we wish could be ripped out from the storybook and thrown into the fire. But reality is that all the chapters matter – good and bad. Each chapter makes us the person we have become and the person we are becoming.
John, or better known as Dad to me, has a story that’s filled with many chapters. Some chapters have episodes of defeat like divorce, being drafted to go to war, and losing family. Other chapters have victories like character development, newfound purpose, and learning to overcome challenges. And interwoven within the chapters are treasures that are silently being sown together to make something greater than ever thought possible. How does Dad describe this great treasure? He says, “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting your mom and my family back.”
Dad didn’t choose the Army as his Mission to Serve, but the Army became his Mission to Serve and he served the victims of war and their families well. Dad didn’t transition from military service into an entrepreneurial career. More importantly, he transitioned from a broken family to one that is restored. He says,
“Getting drafted was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was my chance for me to get my life right, and I did.”
When asked what encouragement he could give to both transitioning veterans and employers, his answer was the same –
“Give it your all. Be strong. Never give up!”
It’s always an honor and privilege to interview veterans and capture their Mission to Serve story. But I must say, this month’s interview will always be my favorite.
VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK - Rio Rancho, NM
Thank you for your service and thank you for being my Dad!
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image courtesy Matt and Tish Photography