Disinvited 

Robert Bowman would seem a natural choice to address a group of veterans.

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he flew 101 combat missions in Vietnam. After that, according to his biography, he was director of Advanced Space Programs Development for the Air Force Space Division during the Ford and Carter administrations. That was back when the program that became known as “Star Wars” was still secret, and Bowman was in the thick of it. He has a Ph.D in aeronautics and nuclear engineering from Cal Tech. He’s lectured at the National War College, and addressed the United Nations and the House of Lords.

Before coming to Michigan last week, Bowman, who lives in Florida, requested specifically that a talk to veterans be arranged. That task fell to Bob Fehribach of Sterling Heights. Fehribach, who served aboard the U.S.S. Rochester in the North Atlantic during World War II, started calling around, looking for a post that holds its meetings on a Tuesday night, when Bowman would be available. After a few misses, Fehribach scored a hit with Amvets Post 57 in Harper Woods. Or so he thought.

“I got blindsided,” says Geoffrey Greve, post commander. Bowman’s speech should never have been approved, he says, since it’s not the post’s policy to present speakers pushing a religious or political agenda.

“We’re there to support vets,” says Greve. “We’re there to support active duty troops.”

Bowman learned he was no longer welcome the night before his scheduled appearance.

Had he been allowed to address them, what would those vets of Harper Woods have heard Bowman say?

“I’d have told them that the war in Iraq is illegal, immoral and unconstitutional,” says Bowman. It is a war, he insists, being fought not to protect the security of the United States, but rather to further an imperialistic foreign policy that wants to guarantee control of Middle Eastern oil supplies. It is a war being fought to further the interests of Exxon, Halliburton and their ilk.

Combat deaths continue to mount, Bowman notes. “And many thousands of our sons and daughters have been injured, maimed for life. That’s all fine and good if you are fighting for something like we did in World War II. We came out of that war as the savior of the civilized world. Now, we have separated ourselves from our allies, destroyed the reputation of this country around the world, and are creating thousands more Osama bin Ladens.”

The cancellation of his address marked the first time something like this has ever happened, says Bowman, who claims to have given thousands of speeches over the years.

“I’m perfectly willing to put my life on the line for this country,” he explains. “When I joined the armed forces, I did it to protect this country. I took an oath to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

These days, he says, it is enemies from within that are the focus of his attention.

The Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties, Bowman contends, “has done more to damage the freedom of the American people than all of our enemies combined.”

Bowman admits that he would have been willing to dial back the rhetoric for an audience of vets, saying “he didn’t need to be so controversial.”

“But,” he adds, “people need to listen to the truth. If they agree with it, then they can do something about it.”

Bowman did find an audience in Detroit. He spoke to a gathering of peace activists at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass.

“It was one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard,” says Fehribach, 77, a retired psychiatric social worker who belongs to the group Veterans for Peace. “Those Amvets really missed out on an inspiring speech.”

Bowman took the rejection in stride. He’s spoken to a number of veterans’ groups over the years. He carries the message that this country owes them a debt, and that we must remain vigilant in maintaining the freedoms they fought for. But those freedoms are being eroded, he asserts, and a government dominated by corporate interests is decimating the middle class.

The way Bowman sees it, he’s earned the right to speak out on these issues. And at this juncture, he considers it his duty to stand up to the policies of George W. Bush.

“As somebody who put his life on the line for this country,” he says, “I can’t stand by and see these neo-cons sell our country down the river for oil profits.”

Not surprisingly, says Bowman, that message tends to resonate more with active-duty military — those whose lives are currently being put in jeopardy — than with those who have already served.

“The bottom line,” says Bowman, “is that the best thing we can do for our combat vets is to quit making so many more of them.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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