A commitment to serve

Gary Dowler draws from his experiences in the military to help others

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Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month, at 7 p.m., in the Camas Community Center, 1718 S.E. Seventh Ave. The non-profit organization helps veterans and their families through participation in community and youth activities. The group hosts coffee hours every Wednesday and Friday, at 9 a.m., at the Camas Community Center. For information about eligibility requirements, contact Robert Hitchcock at 260-7879.

Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month, at 7 p.m., in the Camas Community Center, 1718 S.E. Seventh Ave. The non-profit organization helps veterans and their families through participation in community and youth activities. The group hosts coffee hours every Wednesday and Friday, at 9 a.m., at the Camas Community Center. For information about eligibility requirements, contact Robert Hitchcock at 260-7879.

Gary Dowler joined the military 55 years ago to escape an unhappy home life. The experiences he had during the next decade — both good and bad — changed him forever, but even today he states emphatically that he “wouldn’t change a thing.”

After growing up on a farm just outside of Dayton, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dowler decided after graduating from high school he wanted to make a change.

“On a Saturday morning I sat up in bed and thought, ‘I’m out of here,'” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to join, I was just going to join something.”

He headed down to the military recruitment office around noontime, when most officers in the various military branches had closed up for lunch.

“I heard someone shuffling papers in one of the rooms and I walked down the hall and stuck my head in the door,” Dowler explained. “It was a Navy guy. He asked, ‘what can I do for you?’ I said, ‘I want to join the Navy.’ That was the wisest decision I ever made.”

He spent four years in the Navy stationed at the base on Whidbey Island, where he served as an air crew chief. He then joined the Army’s warrant officer program and attended flight school. He was sent to Vietnam where he spent 13 months piloting helicopters, flying many missions to retrieve wounded or dead soldiers.

“I was very fortunate,” he said. “I was on the ground five times and never got a scratch.”

But, there were several close calls.

“Once, when I picked up to start takeoff, somebody — obviously not a friendly person — started shooting,” Dowler recounted. “Tracers were going through the compartment just above the wounded, because the doors were back. [The shooter] was missing, if he had moved up just a few inches he would have hit my roof. But he didn’t.

“I remember looking back at my gunner, his eyes were about this big,” he continued, forming his hands in a circle and resting them over his own eyes. “He stopped shooting and I made it out of there.”

Dowler said he made many friends along the way that he’ll remember forever, and other’s he’d like to forget.

After returning from deployment, he worked as a flight instructor for the Army for the rest of his tour. Dowler retired from the military in 1969, then flew helicopters as a civilian, working for Del Smith at Evergreen Aviation in McMinnville, Ore., from 1969 to 1973, and then for Weyerhauser.

He joined the Air Force Reserves, where he served until he was 60 years old.

Now 74, Dowler is drawing from his many life experiences to help other veterans and educate young people about the military and patriotism.

As a respite volunteer with Hospice Southwest, he supports veterans in the last stages of their lives. Through the PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center program, he visits patients’ homes, and spends time with them to give family member caregivers a much-needed break.

“It’s a privilege to be in their presence, listen to them, and walk though their history. It gets you right here,” he said, gesturing toward his heart. “It’s very special. It’s difficult, but at the same time it’s very uplifting.”

Dowler has found that his experiences in three different branches of the military are an asset to his volunteer work.

“You can find something in your background to be able to meet that person where they are at,” he said. “Then you walk with them the rest of the way, right down to the point where you are holding their hand and they look up at you and take their final breath.”

Dowler, a Vancouver resident, has been a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Camas-Washougal Post 4278 since 2006. Through the VFW, he works with veterans and the enlisted, as well as local youth.

“I enjoy going to the classrooms,” he said. “I can always pick out the one that was me. It’s the third-grader with the finger in his nose who is at the same time pulling the little girl’s hair.”

Although he approaches life with a sense of humor, he takes his volunteer work seriously.

“Through the VFW, we help soldiers when they get back, we help them while they are gone. To me that’s an enlistment; it’s a dedication,” Dowler said. “It’s giving back for what I received.”

Dowler said he took the oath of enlistment, a commitment a soldier makes to give his or her life to defend the United States, a total of eight times during his military career.

“I looked at all of those guys around me, and you could see this was a very special promise. I never got over that. This, even when it is so screwed up, is worth it. I’d do it again.

“I wouldn’t change anything — nothing. The bonds, the service, the accomplishments,” he continued. “There are some disappointments and there is some pain, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

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