Afghanistan, Vietnam Wars Bring Survivors Together Through Tragedy Assistance
On the National Mall here, young hands traced the letters of the names in granite as visitors walked by to pay their respects, glancing curiously at the group of teens.
Patti Rowley, a first-time mentor with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivor’s 24th annual National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp, shared with the group that her father’s name was on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. They all had lost a military member loved one.
Gunship Shot Down
Air Force Col. Charles Stoddard Rowley, a navigator on an AC-130 Spectre gunship, was part of an 11-man crew. On the night of April 22, 1970, his aircraft, call sign “Ad Lib,” departed Ubon, Thailand, for a “truck-busting” mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. It was hit by 37 mm anti-aircraft artillery fire, caught fire and fell into the jungle.
According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website, at dawn, search and rescue forces found and rescued one crewman but couldn’t find the others. Enemy activity prevented a search and so the rest of the crew were classified missing in action.
In 1993, a joint U.S.-Laos team found the wreckage of the aircraft and many fragments of bone and teeth, as well as crew equipment. On Sept. 1, 1995, the U.S. government announced that the remains were of the missing men, and they were buried in Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 8, 1995.
Chaplain Took Her Home
Rowley said she was 12 years old when her father went MIA, and she was attending a public school at the time. “When the chaplain came to get me from school to take me home to tell us what happened, when he walked in, I knew he was coming for me,” she said. “I don’t know why I knew that.”
Rowley has fond memories of going to airshows with her father. “My father, airplanes were his life. Every time a new plane came out, he wanted to see it,” she said, as her face lit up. She said the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is her home. “I’ve been there so many times. I love it, that’s home to me.”
She said that she’s proud to see her father’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall here in Washington.
“It’s incredible to see so many people come through every day to honor him and the others. He will always be remembered and that’s amazing,” she said, her voice full of emotion.
Her TAPS mentee, Gabby Bowen, 13, of Fairfax Station, Virginia, said she’s been to Washington many times, but hadn’t looked closely at the wall until this weekend.
“It was emotional. It was cool that his name was on the wall, and I saw many, many other people there. I was somewhat overwhelmed,” Bowen said.
Bowen’s father was Army Sgt. 1st Class Collin J. Bowen. He was killed in action March 14, 2008, from an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan.
Bowen said she’s enjoyed being paired with Rowley as her mentor because “she’s very kind and sweet. She’s kindhearted and wise,” she said. “We both lost our parents at a very young age, so we can connect with that. And she was around my age when she found out all this stuff about her dad. I connect with that.”
Rowley, who lives in Tappahannock, Virginia, said she became a mentor because she remembers how hard it was to not have a support system to help with the grieving process. “I know what it’s like to not have it. I know how much it’s needed,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “TAPS is incredible.”
She said support groups like TAPS are important for military families because it is so much a part of their identities, growing up and living on military bases. Once their loved one dies, they go back and live within the civilian community with people who don’t understand what they went through.
“It’s really hard, not having that identity any longer. It was hard bringing that back into my life,” she said. “This year was the first year I went back to Andrews Air Force base and got a military ID to be able to access the base. I was really proud of that. We’ve come a long way.”
Strength and Bravery
Both Rowley and Bowen said being military children who suffered loss has made them stronger people.
“If I feel like I can’t do something or that it’s so hard when it really isn’t, I think of my dad who volunteered to go to Afghanistan on that last mission. I think of that to keep going because I know I can,” Bowen said. “I want to be braver, step out of my box, and not think anything’s tough and hard when really it isn’t.”
“Military children have strength given us by our parents -- that courage and strength to put others first, and they pass on to us to want to make the world better,” Rowley said passionately. “It gives us strength, even in their loss. It’s given me a purpose and strength in life that I wouldn’t have had.”
She also said that it’s hard to grieve alone. “You really can’t effectively. All of your life, you’re healing. Grief is a lifelong journey,” Rowley said. “You don’t get over it; it’s a journey. I don’t expect any of these kids to get over it. I expect them to be proud and to remember and to make their way. I can’t think of a better tool than TAPS and the mentoring program. I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
The National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp is taking place May 25-28 in Arlington, Virginia.
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)