Ron Marinucci: March 2013 Column

Ron Marinucci: March 2013 Column

The Flagman’s quest is coming to a conclusion. He’s closing in on 58,272 miles of running with his POW/MIA flag.

The Flagman is Mike Bowen of Flushing. The 58,272 miles of running with the flag represent “one mile for every American who died or is listed as missing as a POW or MIA in Vietnam. I passed 57, 385 the first of the year,” he recounted. He and his flag have been seen all over Michigan and widely throughout the US, including Boston, Colorado, and Washington, DC.

Bowen is a veteran. He served in the US Army for three years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Running these miles with the flag is “a life-long mission,” he said.

“I was stationed in Germany,” the 64-year old recalled. “But I had buddies who served and died during that same time in Vietnam.” More than half a dozen of those who died were high school friends who all enlisted together.

He started running in 1982. “It wasn’t a pretty picture,” he quipped. “I had stress problems from a new job and I was overweight and a heavy smoker with lots of bad genes--cancer, heart disease, and diabetes [in the family]. I was hooked on nicotine and junk food.” And he admitted, “I had a guilty conscience, survivor’s guilt [from the war]. Eventually I made it through the pain and got addicted to running.”

He was talked by friends at work into running the Crim 10 Mile that year. He’s now run 29 in a row. He’s run hundreds of races with the flag, including several dozen marathons. Those marathons include six Bostons and the Pikes Peak. His longest run was “52 miles, doing a fund-raiser for Toys for Tots.” Fittingly, his favorite has been “the Marine Corps Marathon because of the huge turnout of the military.” He’s done that one twice.

Carrying the POW/MIA flag also began in 1982. “I had ridden my Harley [he’s also a member of the Michigan Patriot Guard, which attends the funerals of fallen American US military personnel] down to view the Wall, the Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial in DC.” He was moved at the sight of the names of his high school friends on the Wall. “While I was there,” he continued, “I met a lady at the panel next to me. She was looking at a name. I asked her if it was her son and when did he die. She said she thought he was still alive since he was classified as a POW/MIA. Since then, I’ve dedicated each mile I run to a name on the Wall.”

Bowen also trains with the flag or, more correctly, flags. He has two of them. One is attached to a five-pound pole. The other is smaller, usually used for races, with a lighter pole. After running with the heavier pole, “It feels like a toothpick.”

Oh, he never, ever complains. Quite the contrary, “It just seems natural,” he said of now running with the flag. He added with a chuckle, “…except when the wind blows. Then it’s a pain in the ___!” Rain can be extra burdensome, making the flag “feel like 50 pounds.”

He usually runs alone, but singled out his wife, Patti. “She’s been my rock for all these years,” he stressed. The retired first-grade teacher of 38 years is “my coach, my best friend, and travels with me and waits all those long hours for me to finish my runs. We are enjoying retirement together.”

Patti remembered an experience Bowen had last summer. Despite the challenges of running in the heat, he said, “I always try to run in the hottest part of the day. I figure the prisoners of war who I represent never get the hot days off, so why should I? Anyway, I went out for a run around the block,” quipping, “an eight-miler. While returning, a lady with a walker stood by the road with a bottle of water for me and with her hand on her heart. She thanked me for carrying the flag and said her husband was a POW in the Korean War.”

He noted, “Kind little gestures like that make it all worthwhile. Many other kind caring people have given me water while running. I really appreciate it.”

Of running in the heat, he added this story. “On another hot day, a car slowed down and the driver said he’d see me soon. I asked, ‘Where?’ He said he was an emergency room doctor and I was going to need him if I continued running in the extreme heat and sun.”

At more than one race, others have asked Bowen if they could help him carry the flag, “in memory of someone they knew.” Politely, he refuses their offers of help.

There was one run when he didn’t carry his flag. In 2002, he was chosen to run a portion of the Olympic Torch Run that passed through Indiana. “They said it [the flag] was a fire hazard,” so he left it home.

Bowen has had several knee surgeries and was diagnosed with colon cancer about seven years ago. “I’m a survivor and happy to be alive,” he admitted, adding, “There are a million of us.” His running “slowed down while recovering from surgery and during chemo and radiation [treatments].” But when he did run, it was “always” with his flag.

He remembers running the Marine Corps Marathon “shortly after 9/11. While near the finish line, a couple Marines lifted me up and said they hoped their generation of veterans honor and remember them like I do mine [of the Vietnam era].” During the marathon, he ran passed the Wall. Emotionally he recalled, “It’s very sacred ground. Seeing my reflection in the Wall and hearing the voices of my Brothers, thanking me, brought me to tears. I was a basket case.”

After seven grueling hours of the Pikes Peak Marathon, “a guy came up and thanked me for honoring his dad who had recently committed suicide from the mental wounds he received in Vietnam.”

The Boston Marathon provided several memories. “One year, at Boston, there were American POWs in Kosovo. People went crazy when I ran by flying the big POW flag.” Another year, at the marathon’s start in Hopkinton, “Some young students asked me if the flag represented a cult of some kind. I gave them a five-minute speech about what it stands for.”

In 2005, “I had the honor of being a part of the opening ceremony at the ‘Moving Wall’ when it was in Caro.” The Moving Wall is a half-sized replica—there are two of them—of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It tours the US, often with one-week stops. Bowen “ran from Reese to Caro with the flag, about 18 miles,” he recalled, “in memory for the 18 locals from that area who died in Vietnam.”

Just having one person tell him, “Thanks for remembering,” makes it “all worthwhile.” Be he is adamant and serious in emphasizing, “It’s not about me. I run for the families of the POWs. Never forget!”

With fewer than seven hundred miles remaining in the journey as of March 1, the goal is nearing an end. “If all goes well,” Bowen hopes “to finish on September 20, 2013. That’s my goal. That’s National POW/MIA Recognition Day [the third Friday each September]. I plan on running my last few miles in DC with the finish at the Wall, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. I started there and would like to finish the mission there.”

Mike Bowen, the Flagman, “Thanks for remembering!”