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August 21, 2000

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Runner with a cause

By Tim Mimick/The Gazette

In about 13 years, Mike Bowen will reach his passionate goal. He wants to run 58,200 miles.

"That's a mile for every American killed or missing in Vietnam," he said Sunday.

The 52-year-old Bowen was spotted in a crowd of Pikes Peak Marathon runners. Heck, he can be spotted from a distance.

He carries a black flag that flutters on a light, thin, 4-foot plastic pole with a foam grip. Printed on the flag in white letters is "POW-MIA, You Are Not Forgotten" around the symbol for the missing U.S. military personnel from the Vietnam War.

In small stickers on the flag pole are the messages: "The price of freedom is written on the wall" and "In memory of those who never returned from Vietnam."

Whenever he runs - in races or training - he carries the flag. On Sunday, he ran with a 2-foot-by-3-foot flag. Sometimes, he runs with a daunting 3-foot-by-5-foot flag.

"I never went to Vietnam. I served three years - 1968 through '70 - with the 3rd Infantry in Western Germany," Bowen said. "But six of my friends, guys I went to high school with (in Clio, Mich.), were killed in Vietnam. What a (expletive) waste of life."

No amount of running, he's past 36,000 miles since he started in 1992, will bring back to life those Americans who fought an unpopular war.

"But I will not forget them, nor the MIA's," he said.

Other runners greet him at these races. They tell him about a brother who died in Vietnam. Or an Uncle Joe, friend, father or grandfather who served there. Some snippet of information that links them. In sorrow, too often.

He's never been hassled. A lot of times, young people will want to know who "Mia" is or if that is some kind of a cult.

"A lot of runners will come up to him during a race and ask him if they can carry the flag for a bit," his wife, Patty, said. "And he says, 'No, you can help hold it, but I won't let go.'"

His first Pikes Peak Marathon on Sunday was marked by a lot of friendly greetings and a finish time of 7hours, 29minutes, 55seconds. Someone asked him at the summit to stop and pose so they could take his photograph. He's run 29 other marathons, but never one so demanding in elevation and terrain.

That was fine with him. He enjoys a challenge. He started running in 1984 because he was a smoker, a drinker and overweight.

"I started running mainly to see if I could save my life," he said.

So the General Motors tool-and-die worker from Flushing, Mich., began running. In 1992, he went to Washington, D.C., for a "Rolling Thunder" rally of Vietnam veterans, bikers and others. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of the dead and missing, inspired him.

"I wasn't a protester back when I got out of the service," he said. "I would have gone to Vietnam if they had sent me.

"But when the war ended in '73, they were talking about so many prisoners and others missing in action. We didn't do enough. That's when I got pissed. We should have been jumping up and down and protesting."

He already was running 80-100 miles a week in 1992. Still does. Maybe running with the flag, which can be purchased at most Vietnam veteran gatherings, would get some voters to put heat on a senator or representative to strive harder for the return of any POW's or MIA's.

If all the Americans missing in action or those who remain prisoners of war would be turned over today to the U.S. government, Bowen wouldn't stop running.

"We can't forget the KIA's (killed in action)," he said. "I won't. What a (expletive) war."

His determination is intense. He suffered a broken right foot 38miles into a 50-mile Michigan race. He still finished. A doctor told him to rest for a year. He trimmed that to about four months and only because it was winter.

He goes through a pair of running shoes in about two months.

On Sunday, he wore adidas shoes with a gray mesh tank top and black shorts. Pinned to the back of the shorts was a miniature POW-MIA flag. He'd wear his POW-MIA T-shirts in races, but they're too hot.

The POW-MIA mission, which has taken him to about a dozen states and Canada, has brought him closer to his father, Robert Bowen. The elder Bowen served in World WarII as a B-17 gunner on 29 missions over Europe. They have heartwarming father-and-son chats that weren't possible years ago.

Some people around Flushing call him "Flag Man." He and Patty Bowen joke about it. They walk together most evenings. That's how she, a first-grade teacher, stays in shape. Then they return home and he takes off running for a few hours.

He has run about 3,000 miles each year with the flag. He will cut that a bit but plans to reach his destination in 2013, with the last miles possibly in Vietnam, when he's 65 years old.

"I don't have a problem with high goals," he said. "I plan on running the rest of my life."

Copyright 1999-2000, The Gazette, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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