GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - When Mike Bowen lines up to run the Fifth Third River Bank Run on Saturday, he'll be running for 58,292 others.
Nearly 42 years after his honorable discharge from the US Army, he's on the verge of completing his "own personal mission to the Vietnam War."
In 1968, at the height of the war, the then-19-year-old Bowen volunteered, one of many from the Clio High School class of '66 to do so.
"The Tet Offensive had just come down and I thought, my gosh, I gotta go and serve my country," he told 24 Hour News 8. "I'm needed. I really felt that way."
He said dozens of his friends joined the military. "It's just what we wanted to do, we just followed in our father's footsteps and service to our country in a time of need."
Bowen was sent to West Germany while most of his friends were sent to Vietnam. Eight of them never returned.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington in 1982, Bowen went. One night, late at the wall, he met a woman who was searching for her son's name.
"We chatted and she said, 'I don't think he's dead,' because there was a little asterisk beside his name, meaning he was a prisoner of war. And I thought, yeah, maybe he's not dead."
At this point, Bowen "was reaching mid-life. I had a pretty good pouch on me. I ate terrible, heavy smoker." He vowed to get in shape.
And he decided to run one mile for every Vietnam prisoner of war, more than 2500 people.
Quickly, he fulfilled that pledge, and then "I just decided to dedicate a mile for every name on the wall."
The man known as Flagman has run more than 56,000 miles, honoring more than 56,000 Vietnam vets.
Over the years, he's gone through three POW flags, three knee surgeries, run more than 30 marathons - including both Boston and New York - and worn out more than 600 pair of shoes. But it was a bout with cancer that shut the mission down for a time.
"Had some surgery, some chemo, some radiation," he said. "I survived."
While he can't come close to the 80-90 miles he used to run each week, Bowen is beginning the mission again at a time when his body tells him it may be time to stop.
"I just sing a little song to myself," he said. "POW, MIA, Bring my brothers home today. They've been gone a long time. Getting mighty tired of crying. Getting mighty tired of crying."
Saturday, he returns to the Fifth Third River Bank Run where he's already logged more than 300 of his miles and will run the 25K.
"There might not be anyone left in town," he said, "but I'll finish."
Join WOOD TV8 and woodtv.com for live coverage of the Fifth Third River Bank Run beginning on 24 Hour News 8 Daybreak Saturday.
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