Vietnam vet ‘graduates’ – 42 years after his class

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Richard Bowen of Simpsonville receives diploma from school board

By Lisa King

After 42 years, Richard Bowen finally achieved a goal he has longed for all his life. Bowen, a resident of Simpsonville, was honored Thursday night by the Shelby County School Board when he was presented with his high school diploma that he would have earned if war had not interfered with his plans. “I am very happy now,” he said, with a big smile. The year was 1969, and the United States was heavily involved in the Vietnam War. It was also a big year for Shelby County native Richard Bowen, 18 years old and a senior at Shelby County High School. Bowen was looking forward to graduation but, unfortunately, Uncle Sam had other plans for him, he said. “I was drafted into the Army,” he said. Boot camp training took him first to Fort Knox and then onto Fort Polk, La., for his AIT (Advanced Individual Training), a step that he said gave him a clue of what probably lay ahead. “I figured then I was being sent to Vietnam,” he said. The experiences that followed were a little nerve-wracking for a young man who, a short time before, only had been concerned with graduating from high school and finding a job afterwards. “I was scared once it started, because I had never been on an airplane for that long,” he said. Once in Vietnam, Bowen’s infantry unit was attached to the Green Beret Special Forces unit, for which he had been assigned night patrol. “It was my job to guard the compound,” he said. Despite numerous combat missions, Bowen escaped injury and returned home in 1971, working briefly for Middletown Manufacturing in Simpsonville before spending 36 years at the General Electric plant in Louisville, from which he is retired. His wife, Zelda, who was with him when he received his diploma, said she was happy for him. “I’m so glad that he finally got it; he deserves it, especially after he worked so hard in school to get it,” she said. She added that their son, Dwayne, always has looked up to his dad for serving his country with honor, so much so that he had made the military his career. “He is in the Air Force in Valdosta, Georgia; he’s been in the military for twenty years now,” Zelda Bowen said. Bowen grinned when asked how he felt about his son following his example. “I’m proud of him, but I was only doing my duty to my country,” he said, with a modest smile. Bowen has also been a role model for the couple’s daughter, Lasondra Bowen. Where does she work? You guessed it: General Electric. Bowen said it was a happy moment for him when he learned that he was finally going to “graduate” 42 years after his classmates. That happiness shone through Thursday night, and the entire school board smiled with him. “We were honored to be able to do this for him,” Superintendent James Neihof said.