In his new book, John Bowen documents the physical and emotional trials of his Vietnam experience, and his readjustment to civilian life. The story is beautifully supplemented by his original drawings. Bowen was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon in 1968. Being the only illustrator in the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit, he had to quickly acclimate himself and get to work supporting the division - graphically. One of the jobs assigned to him was documenting the Airlift resupply by drawing and painting the actual operations on site, in action. He sketched in the field and on the Tan Son Nhut flight line. Join him for a different view of Vietnam - that of an Air Force Illustrator.
ISBN #: 978-0-9857295-5-4
43 black & white drawings
Size: 9"x 6"
Introduction by John Bowen
"At twenty-five and married with two young children, I had finally gotten a handle on my life. My responsibility had been growing steadily as an Air Force Illustrator. I had received a promotion to Staff Sergeant at an air base outside of Austin, Texas where I was running the base graphics shop. My world had become predictable and secure. But it all changed abruptly one day with a phone call. I was suddenly thrust into another world-a distant land torn by turmoil and poverty, far from those I loved. This is the testament of my inner struggle as I fought to survive the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. These twelve months would be the longest I had ever known. They would test my strength as an individual and the bonds of my marriage. My story documents the psychological effects of the war as it unfolded and the lingering aftereffects as I struggled to readjust to the outside world. It is an experience that altered the course of my life, and a story that must be told.
In Vietnam I served with the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon. There I served as an Illustrator from November 1967 through November 1968. The 834th handled the airlift resupply for the entire country. Being the sole illustrator in this two hundred man unit proved to be very demanding. Although I had never asked to be sent to ’Nam, I began my tour with a calm acceptance. I was motivated to fulfill my mission. Despite the oppressive heat and crude equipment, I worked efficiently. My time was filled with endless assignments as I helped document the war effort with statistical presentations and briefings. One assignment had me in the field where I completed, over time, a large series of drawings and paintings on all aspects of airlift operations in Vietnam. Being an artist had always given me a keen sensitivity to my surroundings. But in a place like ’Nam it only served to magnify the horrific nature of the war. I observed civilians struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in a land where their security was constantly threatened. Death was a way of life. The image of a crippled young child was to haunt me for many years. My cousin Dean, who was an Army Radio Operator in a Reconnaissance Platoon, was wounded during a Delta operation, south of Tan Son Nhut. I spent many hours with him as he recuperated at the 3rd field hospital in Saigon. We became very close during that time, and I was glad to finally see him ship back to the states. With the stresses of wartime the friendships developed took on a special intensity too. It became important to have someone to trust, and commiserating made the experience more bearable.
It was said there were no front lines in Vietnam. Attacks could occur anywhere at any time. We lived with this possibility, and endured several serious attacks during the Tet Offensive and in May, during the Spring Offensive, when the Viet-Cong tried to infiltrate the 1200 Area, where I lived. During February and March the base endured night-time rocket attacks, causing much damage and casualties among the support troops. Being a support troop didn’t exclude me. I was drawn into the war just the same, forced to defend the base, and my life. As time wore on the morale of those around me began to slip. I couldn’t help but be affected. Our mission was no longer clear. We were no closer to victory then when the war began and the threat of violence never diminished. We began to hear about the anti-war protests back home and that further eroded our morale. I agonized over the separation from my family and lived for those brief moments when I could hear their voices on the phone, listen to their tapes and read their letters. I had a loving, supportive wife and two children who had just been getting to know me before I left for Vietnam. I began to wonder if I would be able to pick up the pieces when I returned.
When that day finally arrived there was no fanfare, no sympathy-not even acknowledgement by the general public. The irony was that for all my personal sacrifices and those of my comrades, our reception was anything but warm upon our return to the states. It was as if people resented being reminded of a war they had never asked for, a war without end, without purpose. It seemed that everyone just wanted to forget about us, so we became known as the “throwaway soldiers”. In the weeks that followed violent memories of ’Nam would invade my sleep and intrude into my consciousness as I tried to fit back into society and my role as husband and father. I felt estranged from everything, including my family. My wife tried patiently to understand, but in the end it was my own battle. I had to face the demons alone. The government offered no psychological counseling to help the troops re-assimilate. It was hard to comprehend how this could have been overlooked. How could our government have been so callous by asking us to risk our lives without a thought for the repercussions of the war? This was yet another hurdle I had to cross on my own.
After struggling with readjusting to “the world” during my thirty day leave at home, it was with some relief to reunite with military personnel again at my next duty station. It was so good to be able to share stories and experiences that they could understand and relate to. This was the special bond veterans had. In years to come I would feel a special kinship with servicemen, an eagerness to hear of their experiences and share my own. In time the nightmares subsided, but the memories of those Eleven Months and Nineteen Days would never fade."
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Copyright © John Bowen