It’s tempting when talking about Collin to focus on his brave and heroic death in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting for his country. But the truth is, what made SFC Collin J. Bowen a Hero had little to do with the Bronze Star Medal he earned, or the countless awards and recognitions he proudly wore on his dress uniform as a highly-decorated soldier in the U.S. Army. What makes Collin a Hero is the way he lived his life…not the way he died.
In some ways Collin was a paradox of sorts – a conflicting set of ideals. He loved nothing more than out-working, out-hustling, out-smarting a worthy opponent until he had soundly defeated them. His level of competitiveness was legendary and second to none (just the way he liked it). Whether it was on the tennis court, the baseball field, the golf course, or even in the back yard, Collin was determined to win. And he was willing to work harder than anyone else out there to make sure he either won or literally gave it everything he had trying.
Yet despite his fiercely competitive spirit, Collin was also the one teaching those that weren’t on his level. His second grade teacher reported that Collin spent several days in a row of recess not showing off his own kickball skills winning game after game – no. Collin was on the side of the playground, teaching a fellow classmate who was too awkward and clumsy to get picked for a team- how to kick the ball. Finally, after several days of tutoring, he had the boy doing well enough to get his chance to play.
A similar incident took place a couple of years later when Collin was on a class fieldtrip to a local nature preserve. Someone among the group disturbed a hive of bees, which began to swarm and sting some of the children. The entire group did what most of us would do; they took off running for safety without a single concern for anyone else but themselves. But not Collin. A young girl classmate found herself on the bank of a slippery pond – with flat sandals on and unable to get any traction whatsoever to get up the hill to safety. Collin stayed behind…reached his hand out to the girl…and pulled her up the slick bank so that she could make her escape. The girl reported years later that Collin made it too, but as the very last one out, his arms and legs were covered in bee stings…having stayed behind to help his friend.
You see, what separates Collin from most others is that Collin didn’t just show those exceptional character traits when he was a schoolboy, or when he walked onto the baseball field, or when it was easy or convenient. SFC Collin J. Bowen lived his entire life that way.
As he grew older, instead of teaching young children to play kickball, he was training young American soldiers to be leaders of men. Instead of pulling a young classmate to safety from a swarm of angry bees, he was mentoring inexperienced Afghan National Army troops in the ways of warfare. All the while he was constantly leading by example, and never asked anyone to do anything that he would not do himself. He did nothing for glory or recognition; he did it because it was the right thing to do.
In December of 2007, Collin was finishing a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan. It had been a long and tough road, sleeping in the freezing mountains and enduring harsh conditions. He was finally back on the base in Afghanistan, and his bags were literally packed. He would be shipping out for home – finally – in just two weeks. Until then he had earned the right to try and decompress and get some rest from his time in the war.
But his rightful two week rest changed directions when he was asked by a new and inexperienced commander to go on one more dangerous mission back into the mountains. “You have done more than your fair share Sgt. Bowen,” the commander reportedly said. “And you don’t have to go,” he continued. “But I could really use you.”
Never being one to leave a friend in need, Collin answered the call. He didn’t hesitate to go but this time he would be facing more than just bee stings on the side of a hill…
It was day number 10 of a ten day mission. The convoy Collin was riding in was finally on its way home to the base. They were just six miles away. Just six more miles and over one year of missions and gunfights and freezing winters in the mountains and loneliness away from his wife and children would all be over – finally.
And then it happened. The Improvised Explosive Device that Collin’s Humvee hit was so huge that it was heard by the hospital workers over twelve miles away. Two of his comrades were killed instantly in the blast and a third would die days later. Collin was instantly subjected to the unimaginable intensity of over 5,000 degrees of flame and smoke yet amazingly still had the wherewithal to jump out of the truck and run towards help - bullets still flying from enemy fire - as the Americans tried to fight through the ambush.
Such was the raw and painful beginning of an amazing and powerful 72-day journey for Collin and his family, friends, and many, many others. Most of which was spent at a Burn Unit in San Antonio, Texas, where Collin, true to his character, actually did leg lifts in his hospital bed. What an incredible and sobering sight to see a man, burned down to the muscle on over 50% of his body including his legs, arms, face and head wrapped up like a mummy, and still having enough pure guts and determination to try and win yet another battle.
Yet it was not to be this time. The pathogens, the injuries, the burns, the infections, the pneumonia, the bacteria, the damaged lungs, the failing kidneys, the failing liver… it was all too much. Too, too much for any human being and so much more than any human should ever have to go through. Finally, on March 14, 2008, with all of his family by his side holding him, the injuries became too much for Collin to endure. Thirty-eight years of doing things the right way, for the right reason, and our dear, beloved Collin was gone.
What followed from friends, family, and strangers alike was nothing short of amazing. The cards, gifts, letters, emails, hugs, handshakes, smiles, pats on the back, visits, calls, etc., etc., etc. from people all over the country who came together to show their support and love for the American Hero, SFC Collin J. Bowen and his family.
Especially touching was the reception Collin’s hometown of Marion, Indiana gave the decorated war hero. His casket draped in an American Flag, over 100 emergency vehicles from Grant County came to escort the Hero through the streets… past Marion High School… on to the Matter Park tennis courts where Collin spent hours upon hours perfecting his craft. The police and fire departments blocked off streets, the mayor rode in the caravan, the huge American flag was hoisted over the street and held several hundred feet in the air by the ladders on two Marion Fire Trucks. People not only pulled their cars over, but they got out of their cars and stood at ‘attention’ when the Hero’s casket rode by. Some even offered a salute to the fallen soldier. One young girl stood there in the cold, holding a sign that read “Sgt. Collin J. Bowen, My Hero.” The patriot Guard Riders braved the freezing weather riding their beautiful motorcycles in formation behind the hearse. Hundreds of people from local establishments poured onto the streets holding balloons and signs showing their love and respect for this great man. It was an unbelievable spectacle of respect, admiration, pride and sorrow.
Today, the list of “thank you’s” is endless. The people of Grant County opened up their hearts in ways never seen or expected by anyone ever before and we are left with hundreds, if not thousands of calls to return, letters to write, updates to give and cards to send. And it still won’t be enough to truly express how much we appreciate the people who stood by Collin during his life, his struggle to stay alive, and ultimately there for him after his death. You have touched us in a way that is truly indescribable.
In Collin’s memory, so that we may honor his sacrifice and the way he lived his life, and to thank the people of Grant County, we take what we have received from all of you, and we give back to our community in Collin’s name. The Collin J. Bowen Memorial Scholarship fund has been created by Collin’s family to do just that. The Scholarship will be a way for all of the people who have supported Collin and acknowledged all that he has given, to celebrate his memory throughout the years. Collin spent his entire life giving of himself to others and there is no better way that we could honor him than to continue to give back in his memory. He is gone, but his spirit and memory will endure forever.