LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly 50 years after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Mike Bowen is still serving his country and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
“It was my own personal memorial to the Vietnam War in memory of my brothers that didn’t make it home,” Bowen said. “My friend’s son was born when he was overseas. He never met his son. His son never met his dad. I was like, ‘Wow, I gotta do something for these people.'”
In 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive and at the height of the Vietnam War, Bowen volunteered for service. He was 19.
“I wanted to serve my country,” he recalled. “I thought it was important. My father was a World War II veteran and his father was a World War I veteran. I just wanted to keep it going.”
He was one of many from his high school class of 1966 to sign up.
“There was, geez, dozens of us,” Bowen said.
Bowen was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division and Supply Company in West Germany.
“You didn’t have much choice back then. You went where they sent you,” he said.
Many of his friends were sent to Vietnam. Eight of them never came home.
“They died in Vietnam,” Bowen said. “Friends … guys I knew. Cub Scouts, paper boys, sports, partying. Your first beer. Double dates.”
After a more than a decade of living with survivor’s guilt, Bowen attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in November 1982. There, he met a grieving mother looking for her son’s name on the wall.
“There was a little asterisk beside his name, which meant his body had not been recovered,” Bowen remembered. “He was classified as a prisoner of war or missing in action.”
At the time, more than 2,500 such names.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to run a mile for each one of those guys,'” Bowen said. “I just started running. And I quickly did that and decided to run a mile for every name on the wall.”
There are 58,282 names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. For Bowen, that meant 58,282 miles.
Over the next three decades, Bowen ran almost every day — in the beginning, some 60 to 80 miles per week. For every single one of his 58,282 miles, he carried a POW/MIA flag.
“I’ve been through a lot of flags,” Bowen said.
Becoming known to most as “The Flagman,” he ran more than 50 marathons, including in Boston, New York and Chicago; more than two dozen River Bank Runs in Grand Rapids; through nearly 800 pairs of shoes; through three knee surgeries and even a bout with cancer.
“(I) had some surgery and some chemo and radiation and I got through it. I was lucky,” Bowen said.
Through it all, the people he was running for stayed with him.
“I can see pictures of them. I communicate with them when I’m out there on the long hauls. Sometimes I feel they’re there. I think about it,” he said. “It’s peaceful. It’s spiritual. “
While his strides had slowed considerably over the years, on Sept. 20, 2013, nearly 31 years after he started, Bowen finished his 58,282nd mile the same place his mission began: at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Bowen recalled. “It really was. I hated to see it end. Met a lot of great people along the way. And to end it right there, where it started, amazing, just amazing. I couldn’t believe it.”
It was supposed to be his final mission, but turned out to be just the start.
“I already had a plan for another mission,” Bowen said.
He came up with it shortly after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I was just heartbroken when that happened,” Bowen said.
At 68, Bowen decided to run one mile for every person killed Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After completing those 3,030 miles, Bowen is now 6,500 miles into yet another mission: running a mile for every American killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m going to run until I can’t move,” Bowen, now 71, said. “It’s pretty much just a waddle now, but it works.”
On one recent day, he ended a run with salute to his friends listed on the Michigan Vietnam Monument in Lansing:
“Take care of my brothers in arms. You are not forgotten. God bless.”