Marine Corporal Mike McGowan went to Vietnam in February of 1968 when he was 20 years old and came home, physically unscathed, 13 months later.
Thirty-four years later, McGowan organized a reunion of the men he fought with in Vietnam. The reunion took place in Nashville, Tenn., in September of 2002. It took another month after the reunion for McGowan to feel comfortable talking about it.
"I never thought I'd see any of these guys again (after I left Vietnam)," said McGowan in a recent interview. "I thought the experience of war had no impact on who I am today. I was in denial for a long time."
McGowan said he became more curious and more reflective as he grew older. He came to believe that he was doing himself a disservice by shutting out his wartime experience and the impact it had on him.
"Well, for instance, I've had times in the past when I've felt real rage and I wondered if that was as a result of suppressing war experiences," said McGowan. "Also, I wondered if some of the memories I had were entirely accurate or made up. And I felt nostalgic. I knew if I didn't do it (the reunion) these guys would die and I'd never see them again."
McGowan started searching for men from his field artillery unit and found 25 out of 150 from the Foxtrot Battery 211 in the Second Battalion of the 11th Marine regiment in the 1st Marine Division.
He particularly wanted to see a guy named Michael Hunt, one of the few young men in the battery who was married when he got to Vietnam.
"We shared a hooch together," said McGowan. "He was on the gun with me for about 10 months."
The gun McGowan referred to was a 105 mm howitzer used to fire high explosive projectiles at enemy troops.
"I was the section chief," said McGowan. "I owned that gun. My section chief taught me how to run the gun and another guy, a gunnery sergeant, was really hard on me and pushed me to be more of a leader.
"But for the most part it was just a bunch of kids teaching each other and within three months I was running the gun," he recalled.
"I knew if I didn't do a good job I'd go home in a body bag," he said. "It was a life with no ambivalence for me. I liked it. It was a life without ambiguity or gray areas. You do your job or die."
McGowan said combat has more to do with not screwing up than anything else.
"You protect your buddies by not making mistakes," he said. "If you watch his back and he watches yours, you maximize your chance of coming home.
"I never questioned why I was there," he added.
McGowan said he had certain immediate goals to meet while in Vietnam. First, he had to survive in order to get home. Second, he had to do whatever he did better than the grunts in the Army. Third, he had to master the gun and fire fast, far and accurately.
And he managed to do it all.
"Nothing bad happened to me in the war," he said.
"I was in a band, and I discovered women," he said. "I was reclassified to 1A when I got a C average and I did not want to be drafted into the Army. So I joined the Marine Corps.
"I kind of wanted to go anyway," he said. "I knew nothing about the politics of Vietnam. I just knew that my father's big regret was that he didn't go into the service in World War II."
Kids in McGowan's hometown of West Sacramento were not, by and large, draft-dodgers.
"It (the war) wasn't really talked about," he said. "It was expected and assumed that you would go when called. And like other kids my age, I grew up on myths of war."
But McGowan soon found out that the reality of war was quite different.
"The first night of boot camp, I said: 'Oh (expletive deleted), I've made a big mistake,' " he said. "I said it again on arrival in Vietnam. Thirteen months looked like a very long time."
"Remember that scene in 'Platoon' where the recruits and the renegades pass each other in Okinawa? The recruits are getting on the plane to Vietnam and the renegades are getting off and going home. One of the older guys says to a young Charlie Sheen: 'You're gonna die.' That's exactly what it was like.
"And the first half of 'Full Metal Jacket' was too real, letter perfect, describing the brutality of boot camp," he said. "And that bit in 'Apocalypse Now' where Martin Sheen finally makes it up river and there's a firefight going on at night and he asks someone who's in charge. And this guy looks at him and says, 'Aren't you?'"
McGowan stops talking and wipes his forehead. The memories are coming on a little too quickly, perhaps.
"God, I'm sweating," he says.
"I was really only afraid when I first got there and when I was ready to come home," he continued.
McGowan says Vietnam was an experience he asked for.
"I knew I had no one to blame but myself," he said. "But I was fortunate, too, because I had a good family and a great support network.
"I was dating Sue (when I left) and she wrote almost daily. I had five sisters and a Mom and Dad and I always got letters from home. And I returned home to a nurturing and supportive environment and got married within four months of coming home. That was the biggest factor in my re-adjustment.
"I was blessed. I got from my family and friends and my world what every vet should have gotten," he said.
As time went by, the idea of a reunion ate at him until he began putting it together, making the calls, and getting excited.
Finally, the Foxtrot Battery reunion took place in September.
Mike and Sue McGowan particularly wanted to hook up with Mike and Sue Hunt. Both marriages have survived almost 35 years.
"It was really good to see him," said McGowan. "It was the most emotional part of the reunion for me."
Hunt, reached at his Florida home last week, was pleased with the reunion, too.
"Mike McGowan, what a ham," he said in a phone interview. "We called him Mr. Magoo (the nearsighted cranky cartoon character) because he'd break into Magoo talk when things got rough.
"When I arrived in Vietnam I was assigned to Mike's gun," Hunt added. "He was a couple of years older than me and at that age it made a big difference. A section chief in the artillery is like a squadron leader in the infantry. I followed him.
"He was a Marine, not a screw-up. I knew I was dealing with a capable leader. I knew that he was going to go far even though in Vietnam he had no idea of what he was going to do."
Hunt said he wasn't at all surprised to learn that McGowan had become a politician.
"He did exactly what I thought he'd do," said Hunt.
Hunt struggled to explain what it was like seeing his old friend again after so many years.
"When I got the call setting up the reunion McGowan said: 'You probably don't remember me' and I said: 'You've got to be kidding, of course I remember you!'
"Talking to him again, we just picked right up like it was yesterday," Hunt said.
Hunt recalls McGowan making the announcement, about six weeks before he was supposed to leave Vietnam, that he wasn't going to take a shower until he got his flight orders. That was OK with all the other guys because they lived outside and it was hot and dirty and everyone smelt terrible.
"But after he got his orders and went to take a shower, he came back up the hill calling for me. He said the dirt wasn't coming off," Hunt said.
"I had to go with him and scrub him with a brush to get that ground in dirt out of his skin," said Hunt.
McGowan claims not to remember that story nor his imitations of Mr. Magoo.
"But I came away from the reunion thinking that it was a good thing," added McGowan. "I got to see the people I wanted to see. My curiosity was sated. And my memory of what it was like as a Marine was pretty accurate. I had done my job and was respected by my peers.
"It was an important part of my life and it did have a big impact on me. But I've progressed OK. I have been doing what I'm supposed to and I shouldn't worry about letting those memories out. It's OK. We're old enough to muse about what it was like.
"I was not wounded or injured. I came out of it enriched, not diminished, I was blessed. Life has been good to me," he said.
The reunion was so successful that another one is being planned for 2004 in Washington, D.C. McGowan said some guys didn't want to come to the 2002 reunion. Those guys probably won't want to come to Washington and visit the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall. But he understands.
"Some guys still aren't ready," McGowan said.
You can reach McGowan at email@example.com
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Cpl. Mike McGowan, section chief with Foxtrot Battery 211, Second Battalion, 11th
Marine regiment, 1st Marine Division serving his country from Vietnam in 1969. A December 30, 2002 feature by Elisabeth Sherwin in the Davis Enterprise and part of PRINTED MATTER ON THE WEB
Photo provided by Mike McGowan. ©2002 All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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Cpl. Mike McGowan, section chief with Foxtrot Battery 211, Second Battalion, 11th Marine regiment, 1st Marine Division serving his country from Vietnam in 1969. A December 30, 2002 feature by Elisabeth Sherwin in the Davis Enterprise and part of PRINTED MATTER ON THE WEB
Photo provided by Mike McGowan. ©2002 All rights reserved. Used with permission.