Profile | Colonel Jeremy Bowling
Facing history, healing scars, and building diplomatic bridges at Hamburger Hill
The Influence of History is a limited spring blog series from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. With contributions from ISD director of programs and research, Dr. Kelly McFarland and guest authors, this series will focus on the enduring influence of history on foreign affairs. Read more from ISD on diplomatic history.
Colonel Jeremy Bowling is a U.S. War College Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Since commissioning in the U.S. Army in 1999, he has served at all levels within the Department of Defense, including commands and deployments across the Balkans, Europe, Africa and the Middle East with the 3rd Infantry Division, the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division, United States Africa Command, and the U.S. Department of State.
He recently sat down for an interview with Emily Crane Linn, Editorial Assistant at The Diplomatic Pouch to discuss one especially powerful moment in his career: a firsthand encounter with the past that taught him the power of history to build peace and strengthen diplomacy.
Emily: Your bio is obviously extensive: you’ve deployed all over the world, served under Generals McChrystal and Miller at the Pentagon– and even studied here at Georgetown. I have no doubt we could go on for hours about each of those experiences. But there’s one experience in particular I want to hear about today: your time with the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment (the “Rakkasans”) of the 101st Airborne Division, starting with your experience in Normandy.
One of the more important experiences I had was after I came home from my third deployment to Iraq. I was tasked with helping coordinate the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. After we finalized all the planning for the event, I actually got to parachute into St-Mère-Église myself and participate in the ceremonies all across Normandy throughout the week. And as all of this was ongoing, what I was seeing was so many veterans from World War II from all the allied nations. There were parades and meals and festivities and honors, and I could see how all these guys were benefiting from this. This made a huge impression on me. It was one of the most formative experiences of my career and it led to the story I’ll tell next.
Several years later, I had the honor of a lifetime and was selected to return to the 101st Airborne as a Lieutenant Colonel and serve as a battalion commander in the Rakkasans. And I realized as I was preparing for that experience that while I was going to be in command of the third battalion of the Rakkasans, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill was going to occur. So much of the pride and morale of the Rakkasans comes from our history and our connection to our veterans. And so I thought, I’ve got to grab on to this and help my team “understand our why” as we prepare for whatever our nation has in store for us. To do that, I put a lot of emphasis on our history.
The vast majority of the veterans from that time who were still living were very actively involved with the Rakkasans. Every year, they would come back for a big reunion and loved to support the young soldiers and leadership. In my first year on the job, it was the 49th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, and so to mark the occasion, I organized a big athletic competition the week prior, called the Iron Warrior competition (which was actually originally an innovation by General Petraeus several decades ago, but had died out during the War on Terror years). And I was a little surprised by how successful it was! I had people coming from all over the United States who wanted to be a part of it and it got us a lot of attention. It turned into a much bigger deal than I had expected– and it was just the 49th anniversary!
So at the end of the week, I made an announcement: I decided that next year, for the 50th, we’re going back to Vietnam. I made the promise that we were going to go back to Hamburger Hill for the anniversary. I envisioned what I had seen in Normandy and I thought if those veterans benefitted so greatly from that experience, why couldn’t I do the same for the Vietnam veterans? Nobody else was doing that, but I felt these veterans were just as deserving.
But I actually didn’t get approval from my commander to move ahead with it. He felt I needed to focus on preparing for war-fighting, on combat readiness. I understood that, but I knew I could do both: I could have the battalion best prepared for war and take them to Vietnam. So we raised money to cover the expenses out of our own pockets. We spent the next year training and preparing for combat– and we were extremely prepared, according to the statistics they use to track combat readiness, we were one of the most ready units in the Army. So we accomplished that goal, which was our number one priority. But our second priority (a close second) was to get ready for this event.
We began coordinating with the U.S. embassy in Vietnam, and they were just blown away by this idea. No one had ever suggested anything like this before. And when the 50th anniversary rolled around the next year, the Iron Warrior competition had tripled in size from the previous year. We had 1,000 people show up to compete in the race, we had butchers donate whole pigs that we slow roasted, we had country music artists performing– it was just an incredible week. And at the end of the week, we got on a plane to Vietnam, everyone who wanted to go and who had raised the funds to cover their costs. Most of the group were veterans who had fought at Hamburger Hill 50 years ago and who had never been back.
Over the course of the year of coordination with the U.S. embassy, we had identified surviving members of the North Vietnamese army who had also fought in this horrific battle. Not many were still alive, but we were able to find a few, and we spent the better part of that week interacting with their veterans– and I don’t think anyone expected that part to be as beneficial as it ultimately was, but it was a huge part of it. At the end of the week, when we actually made the journey to Hamburger Hill– which is in a very remote, rural area, not easy to get to– we found that the Vietnamese had actually erected a museum at the base of the hill to commemorate the battle, and so we all got to see the way that they remembered this event in their history. But what was amazing was that some of the photos there had my veterans in them, so my veterans and the North Vietnamese veterans started going through the museum swapping stories and looking through the pictures. And I watched barriers come down and friendships start to form– and the staff from the U.S. embassy were shocked. They had never seen anything like it before.
Then we spent the afternoon ascending to the top of Hamburger Hill. None of the guys who were with me had ever made it to the top. They suffered 70 percent casualties during the battle. Some of them had sustained some very severe wounds and were carrying around a lot of demons, so it was incredibly powerful for them to come back and to actually make it to the top. Many of them had brought mementos from their brothers who had died on the hill. There were no words to do justice to the peace that everyone found for themselves on the top of that hill that day.
After we all got safely down the hill, the next day, we had this huge state dinner hosted by the Vietnamese government. We had brought a few bottles of Jack Daniels from the U.S. and so we were passing those around, eating Vietnamese food, and my veterans and the North Vietnamese veterans were swapping war stories from the same fight. They had become friends. It was such a remarkable sight to behold. Never in a million years would we have thought this could be possible.
Emily: What are the lessons we can take away from this story for the field of diplomacy?
When we started out with this, we had no idea how much traction it would gain with the Vietnamese government. We didn’t understand that this would become such a big deal for them. Our efforts were able to bridge a very important divide between two nations that, just decades earlier, had been at war with each other. And at the time, in the two years leading up to our event, there had been a concerted effort to improve diplomatic efforts with many countries in southeast Asia, in response to rising tensions with North Korea and increasing competition with China. As a nation, we wanted to build diplomatic bridges in places they hadn’t been built before, and this event ended up being exactly that.
We were a bunch of soldiers in an infantry battalion; we weren’t doing this to further U.S. diplomatic efforts but in retrospect, that’s exactly what it did. When we left that week, we had surviving veterans from both sides of the fight hugging each other and telling jokes. That shows you the power of that experience. And throughout the week, I had leaders from both the local and national government ask to meet with me to discuss development issues where they would like U.S. support, and so I was able to take notes and report back on those things to the embassy, which was just one more way for us to build inroads with a nation that just 50 years ago was at war with us.
I don’t pretend to be a historian or cultural expert, but I have to think that anywhere where the US has been involved in conflict in the last 60–75 years, where people might still be alive, we would stand to benefit from organizing similar events: Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and eventually, Afghanistan. In all these places around the world, there are people who have experienced significant trauma and very much want to make peace with that. What we learned is that you can. It’s absolutely doable and you don’t know the diplomatic doors that might open as a result of it.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Crane Linn is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is in her second year of her Global Human Development master’s degree at Georgetown, with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Emily is also one of ISD’s inaugural McHenry Fellows.
Read more from ISD’s “Influence of History” series: