11 years after his death, soldier gets belated honor

Man killed in Iraqi desert awarded Purple Heart

September 02, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Exactly 11 years to the day after Army Pfc. Shawn VanDinter was critically injured in an explosion in the Iraqi desert, he learned from his congressman that he would receive the Purple Heart. He jumped up and cheered, but his exuberance was tempered.

What about Charles Bowman, his Army buddy from Carroll County?

"I could care less if I got the medal, but I wanted Charles to have it," VanDinter recalled. "It is recognition from the country we fought for and he died for."

VanDinter, 33, battled for more than a decade after the end of the Persian Gulf war to persuade the Army to award the medals. When military officials balked, saying the blast was an accident unrelated to combat, he provided documentation showing enemy munitions caused the wounds.

On April 2, VanDinter, who lives in Washington state, received word that he'd succeeded. Later that day, he learned that Army Spc. Charles L. Bowman Jr. had been accorded the same honor.

It took time for Bowman's family to arrange for a ceremony here. But when the family accepted the medal Aug. 25 in a ceremony at the Maryland Army National Guard Armory in Westminster, VanDinter was there.

The Bowmans insisted that he take his medal to the armory to formally receive it along with his fallen friend.

"Charles would never have gotten the medal without Shawn," said Bowman's mother, Sandi.

Her son, born on Memorial Day 1970, grew up in Manchester. He studied auto mechanics and played baseball at North Carroll High School. The son of a Marine veteran of Vietnam and the grandson of a World War II hero who earned two Purple Hearts, he joined the Army in 1988, soon after his graduation.

Bowman trained as a tank mechanic before being deployed to Germany with the 8th Armored Division. Late in 1990, he was sent to Saudi Arabia. The last picture he mailed home showed him smiling, seated atop a tank with desert in the background.

"Charles was instrumental in the battalion's success in battle," his commander would later write.

On April 2, 1991, Bowman and Sgt. David Lopes were ordered to clear unexploded munitions in the desert five miles inside Iraq. VanDinter was watching them work. He cautioned them of the danger. Seconds later, a bomblet exploded in Bowman's hand.

Last week, VanDinter sat in a Manchester living room and recounted the last minutes of his friend's life. Sandi Bowman and her husband, Charles Sr., held each other and wept quietly. Their other two children listened.

"The bomb went off and blew a hole through my foot, broke my jaw and sent shrapnel into my chest," VanDinter said. "I rolled over and saw Charles lying there face down and not moving. The medics were not working on him."

Bowman was buried with military honors at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Baltimore County.

During a long recuperation, VanDinter and Lopes received several calls from Sandi Bowman.

"We were all in such shock, but we wanted Charles' friends to know we were praying for them," she said.

Eventually, she asked for their accounts of the incident. She became convinced that her son should receive a Purple Heart, but she had little idea of how to proceed. VanDinter took charge, and kept in touch with the Bowmans.

The Army twice turned them down. Military officials said they could not award medals because the wounds were sustained after a cease-fire had been declared. But that requirement was dropped in 1996.

Still, the Army insisted that the injuries were the result of an accident unrelated to combat.

Although perhaps millions of Purple Hearts have been awarded, Wyman N. Bailey, senior researcher and archivist for the Army Review Boards Agency, said families often misunderstand the Army's refusal to bend the rules to bestow the Purple Heart.

"The Army has the responsibility to protect the integrity of this award," Bailey said. "This continues to be the most precious award we have. ... Nothing should be taken away from [other recipients]."

Bailey added, "The hardest thing to tell a family is that their son or daughter does not meet the requirements."

Despite the obstacles, VanDinter persevered.

"I couldn't let it drop," he said.

Once military officials were satisfied that enemy munitions caused the wounds, VanDinter - and Bowman and Lopes - qualified for the medal.

"We determined that these men were on a cleanup mission to remove enemy munitions," Bailey said. "Their injuries were caused by an enemy act."

Sandi Bowman was so intent that VanDinter be with her family for the medal ceremony Aug. 25 in Westminster that she paid his airfare from Washington state. After years of phone conversations and letters, the Bowmans met VanDinter and his wife, Tami, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The hosts planned a busy week for their guests, including tours of Washington, but VanDinter insisted that his first stop be Bowman's grave.

"When I got hurt, I was picked up and put in a helicopter," he said. "I was never able to pay my respects or say my piece. I was too injured to be part of the ceremony in Germany or here.

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