When Joseph “Joe” Bowser enlisted in the U.S. Army, he had no idea his army career would come in two phases, with a five-year gap in between. First, he joined as a motor transport operator in 1980, eventually becoming a cavalry scout and then a drill sergeant before his honorable discharge in 1996. Then, just five years later, after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, Joe was compelled to re-enlist in the US Army Reserves and was deployed toIraq in2004 in support ofOperation Iraqi Freedom.
“I was deployed with a transportation unit in Balad Iraq, and pretty much every night around 7:30 or 8:00, the enemy would hit us with rockets and mortars. One night, I was coming out of the phone tent and heard noises, so I looked at my watch to see what time it was. Just at that moment I heard a high-pitched whistle sound behind me.”
What Joe heard was a 122mm rocket that exploded right behind him, tossing him into the air. “Suddenly I’m lying on my back with an incredible pain in my leg, yelling for help.”
What happened next continues to amaze Joe to this day. “Out of nowhere, two female medics rushed to my aide. I had my eyes closed because the debris was still falling out of the sky, so I never actually saw them. They cut off my weapon and my body armor, and had just taken scissors to cut off my uniform when we heard the next round coming in. These two medics threw themselves over my body to protect me from the second explosion.”
Joe was stabilized and sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, where he underwent 14 painful operations to try and save his right leg. Then one day, his doctor gave him a choice. “He came in and said I could salvage the leg, be in pain the rest of my life and have a leg I couldn’t use, or I could have it amputated.”
"My first thought was I want to play hockey again, so I'm going to have it whacked off. I basically had it cut off so I could play hockey."
While recuperating from his injuries and going through rehabilitation, Joe worked for the Deputy Secretary of Defense until he retired in 2006.
Determined to return to playing hockey, Joe was named to the U.S. National Amputee Team 2007. From there, he helped to grow the U.S.A. Warriors Ice Hockey team, a program designed to assist military veterans who have sustained injuries while serving abroad. Hockey provides a competitive outlet as well as a vital rehabilitation tool.
“Our biggest injuries are the ones you can't see. The guys suffering from post-traumatic stress or brain injuries. Hockey gives us such a great opportunity to just be able to skate together and tell war stories in the locker room. The first time I stepped on the ice after being wounded was the greatest feeling ever. I felt like I was normal again."
Although Joe retired in 2006, he continued to serve as Staff Assistant to the Secretary of the Army through 2021 where he advised the Secretary on wounded veteran issues, including issues on military and VA health care facilities, veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and the plight of mental health problems.
Today, Joe and his wife, Michele are the proud parents of six children and 10 grandchildren.
The Gary Sinise Foundation looks forward to building Joe and his family a home where he can more easily navigate the routines of daily living and host large family gatherings where he can participate to the fullest.