A routine roadblock quickly led to a life-changing event in late-June for Anderson Union High School graduate Matthew Wayne Bowen, 22, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment.
Nicknamed the “Thundering Third,” Bowen’s unit was deployed twice to Afghanistan under command of the 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during Operation Enduring Freedom. The first deployment was in 2011 and the second departed March 14, 2013.
“It was about 9 a.m. on June 26 when we started setting up a roadblock just outside of a small village outside the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province,” Bowen recalled during a telephone interview Friday, Nov. 1, from his unit’s home base at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
“We weren’t letting anybody into or out of this village when all of a sudden we started taking a couple of pot shots,” Bowen said.
Events quickly went hazy for Bowen, who took a bullet in his left eye at 9:27 a.m. The projectile broke some of Bowen’s facial bones as it exited, just nicking the bottom of his steel combat helmet.
“They never did find the shooter, but they think it may have been a sniper because some of our guys took out a sniper in that same area a couple days later,” Bowen said.
Bowen was quickly evacuated from the area by helicopter and later medevaced to a hospital in Kandahar where he underwent surgery and spent two days in a military hospital before he was airlifted to Frankfurt, Germany. Bowen was eventually taken stateside for another brief stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Back home in California, Airyanna Jacquelline Bowen, then 20, was busy taking care of the couple’s 6-month-old son Ronald William Bowen while looking forward to her own 21st birthday a few days later.
“The same day Matthew was shot, I received a phone call about 10 hours later from base headquarters. They told me he had been shot in the head,” she recalled.
All manner of horrible thoughts filled her mind for four long days until she and Matthew were finally reunited.
“His command has been super helpful and supportive, but I don’t think I could have gotten through Matthew’s injury without my Mom by my side,” Airyanna Bowen said of her parents, Jean and Troy Cain of Anderson.
“Although Matthew was only in the hospital a few days, he is still recovering and will be for a long time. His command has made sure that we have everything we need,” Mrs. Bowen said.
As the Bowen’s near their second anniversary Nov. 21 and the first birthday of their son on Nov. 28, Airyanna and Matthew are contemplating some of the many changes they will soon be forced to make.
“I have a couple of metal plates in my head and I just received my prosthetic eye last week,” said Bowen, who is awaiting a medical board review, the first step towards a medical retirement from the Marine Corps.
Once Matthew is actually discharged, the couple will have to vacate military housing on base within two weeks. Airyanna Bowen, who operates a freelance photography and portrait business from their residence, will also lose the support network and potential customers of military wives and dependent children awaiting the return of deployed spouses.
“Our plan is to move back to Anderson where we can be nearer to our families,” she said.
Although his dream of a military career was cut short prematurely, without any hesitation Bowen said he would sign up again if physically able.
“I was just about to re-enlist when I was injured. I’m still in the military, but it looks like I will be discharged with 100 percent disability benefits because they consider me the same as an amputee since I lost an eye,” said Bowen, who now hopes to complete college with the G.I. Bill and pursue a career in nursing or become a firefighter.
Meanwhile, in a special ceremony held Oct. 25, Bowen received a certificate and his commanding officer pinned the Order of the Purple Heart ribbon for “wounds received in action on June 26” onto the chest of his dress uniform.
The certificate was signed by President Barack Obama on July 17, just one day before NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, led by American troops, formally handed over control of the last 95 districts to Afghan forces.
While the Bowens learn to adjust to the idea of life outside the military, they and thousands of other military personnel are stuck in a Catch 22 where many are forced to collect unemployment or live with relatives for long periods until the Veterans Administration disability claims are processed.
“Sadly, it can take 14 to 24 months before the VA paperwork can be processed” on medical disability claims, noted U.S. Congressman Doug LaMalfa during a brief address at the Oct. 25 opening of the 155-bed California Veterans Home – Redding.
Approximately 14,000 veterans have had their appeals for disability claims pending for more than two years, states a special report published Aug. 25, 2013, in the Washington Post. That article was researched by Mary Shinn, Daniel Moore and Steven Rich.
While waiting for a VA claim to be processed, many of the nation’s war wounded are going broke, reports Kimberly Hefling for the Associated Press in an article printed Aug. 18, 2011, by Military Times.
The VA has a backlog of nearly 745,000 disability claims, Ben Kesling of the Wall Street Journal reported in an Oct. 9, 2013 article. Even during the recent government shutdown, the VA kept 13,000 Veterans Benefits Administration employees on the job to process those claims
Under a new, supposedly streamlined system, initiated in 2007 and completely rolled out at military bases nationwide by September 2011, service members go through two simultaneous evaluation systems, one for the service branch and a second for the VA, Hefling’s article states.
Even so, a typical case is handed off between the Defense Department and the VA nine times during the new, integrated process that typically starts a year after a service member is injured.
The average completion time, according to Hefling’s research, is more than 400 days even though the stated goal of the process is to complete the assessment within 295 days.
And the process can leave service members and their families in limbo for more than two years, Hefling’s story continues.
“These delays not only affect service members, but the military’s readiness as well since new troops can’t enlist until others are fully discharged,” Hefling noted in her article.
Back in northern California, hundreds of citizens are expected to gather at Veterans Day parades and ceremonies this weekend.
The Lions Club in Shasta Lake City will host its annual salute to Veterans with a parade that steps off at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.
In a tribute to the 60th anniversary of the truce that ended hostilities, if not the conflict between what is now North and South Korea, the parade will feature at least a dozen military-era vehicles carrying members of the Korean War Veterans Association, National Chapter #1, based in Anderson, Calif.
Chapter Commander Bill McKinney recently returned from a tour of South Korea sponsored by that country’s government as a way to thank American veterans and showcase dramatic changes in the nation.
A solemn Veterans Day Observance is also scheduled for 10:55 a.m. Monday, Nov. 11, at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery, 11800 Gas Point Road, Igo.