On Feb. 2, 1972 Gary Bowen and his fraternity brothers crowded around a radio as 365 ping-pong balls were randomly chosen, assigning young men to the draft in order of their birthdays. Bowen was not drafted.
Later, as a husband and father with a master’s degree in social work, Bowen was denied a position in the Air Force because he lacked experience.
Three decades later, the William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Social Work with a Ph.D. in family studies has possibly helped more service members and their families from the outside than he ever could as an insider.
“I have always recognized in my work that I am an outsider,” Bowen says. “I do not have a membership card to any of these organizations so I have to respect the rules of engagement for them.”
For every 100 returning service members, an estimated 20 to 25 will have some form of psychological problem, ranging from generalized anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder to major depression.
In working with military leaders at U.S. bases around the world, Bowen has tried to help them form “guardrails of support” by connecting formal support systems provided by base and civilian agencies with informal support networks including extended family members, friends, fellow unit members and neighbors.
For instance, a 19-year-old soldier in Afghanistan might spend his day carrying an automatic weapon, going from building to building checking for weapons. “Imagine the adrenalin going through that person’s body.” Bowen says. Two weeks back from war, that same soldier is reaching out to a friend in need or taking a cherished son or daughter to school.
“How do they make that transition?” Bowen asks.
Bowen helps commanders find answers to that question. “The science of social support is one that is very strong. The issue is how do we orchestrate this and what is the game plan for making it happen. Much of my fieldwork is tied to exploring how formal systems can work to strengthen and reinforce informal networks.”
“I hope that my work has led to some small impact over time.” Bowen says. “If there is a secret to success, it is in the power of relationships. That is not just the way I work, it is my philosophy of life.”