For this installment of 11 Questions, we reached out to our Founding President and NYC veterans icon Vince McGowan!
Vince was born on the West Side of New York City, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964. He served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 with Charlie Company, First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment as Platoon Commander of the first successful combined action unit, part of the Hearts and Minds program. The unit was embedded in a Vietnamese village and defended it against hundreds of Viet Cong; its story is captured in Bing West’s “The Village.”
After coming home, Vince attended Fordham University and built a career in hospitality, real estate and government service. In addition to his work with the UWVC, he has been active in the veterans community for decades. He has served as a member and leader of numerous veteran organizations, was a founding member and Chair of the NYC Veterans Advisory Board, and is active as a member of the New York State Veteran Corps of Artillery. His son, Doug, is also a Marine veteran.
1. HOW DID YOU END UP IN THE MILITARY?
As a rambunctious teenager I was not interested in school, I attended 5 high schools and when President Kennedy was assassinated, I could not contain myself, so I volunteered for the US Marine Corps.
2. DID YOU HAVE VETERANS IN YOUR FAMILY?
My parents immigrated to the US from Ireland and both supported the war effort during the World War II, building ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My uncle Joseph was killed during WWII, storming the beach in Italy as a member of the British Army. Another Uncle Joe served in the US Army as a Chaplin in Korea.
3. WHERE DID YOU SIGN UP?
I signed up at the recruiting station in midtown Manhattan, 43 St between 7th & 8th. My induction was at the old Whitehall St induction center in lower Manhattan. A bus picked us up there and we went to South Carolina for boot camp at Parris Island.
4. WHAT WAS OUR MAIN MOS?
My MOS was 0311 – Infantry. My training was in small unit tactics and weapons. I received my Staff Sergeant (E6) stripes in Vietnam.
5. DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR DRILL INSTRUCTOR’S FIRST NAME?
My senior Drill Instructor was Staff Sergeant Hornsby. We called him Sir, with a “Sir – Yes -Sir!” before being allowed to speak to him.
6. WHAT IS THE WORST THING YOU ATE IN THE MILITARY?
Traveling around the world during my 4 years in the US Marine Corps I had the opportunity to sample many unusual foods. In Vietnam, my assignment was to achieve a kind of hearts & minds transformation of the local villagers. This required getting to really know the people in my area of responsibility. Attending Village meetings, celebrations and community gatherings meant eating together with and accepting what our neighbors offered us as part of the shared community. One particular dish of coagulated water buffalo blood drawn from the live animal in its stall was if nothing else exotic… The local people raised and cooked the food we ate came from the fields around our villages & from the river. Snakes, birds, fish, animal parts not familiar to us were always offered and you got to enjoy it along with the company of people from a culture far removed from our own.
7. WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE DAY IN THE MILITARY?
Not having the experience of a high school graduation, the USMC Boot Camp graduation ceremony at Paris Island that my mother attended will always be a great memory. There I received the coveted US Marine Corps Dress Blues award for excellence & proficiency in all aspects of infantry warfare. This distinction and the knowledge gained from the training served me very well and saved my life in some of my future assignments.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK TO THE DAY YOU GOT OUT OF THE MILITARY, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
The training and experiences I received in my four years in the Marine Corps, learning from the extraordinary men who paved the way before me, gave me knowledge and benefits that most young men during those years avoided. I would again tell myself to never forget the valiant men who did not come home. When your bag of wild oats is empty, find your purpose and a partner and live your life to its fullest, as an example of the lives that could have been had we all come home.
9. DID YOU HAVE ANY MENTORS WHO SHAPED YOUR PHILOSOPHY OR ACTIVITIES AS A VETERAN?
I came home to a hostile environment in 1968. The U.S. was at odds with itself, to the point of violence. The West Side of Manhattan had an old established Veterans community that was divided politically down the middle. I tried to join a local American Legion Post but our comrades from prior wars were not welcoming. I found a post whose membership were Greek immigrants who had been drafted into the Korean War — many could not speak English very well. Over time I was elected the Post Commander. The Post quickly grew when Vietnam Veterans were invited in. The original members of Post 1396 made me their comrade in arms, and we all talked through our different experienced together. Their example of persevering in the face of adversity, as it applies to Veterans organizations, was a life lesson well learned.
10. WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT AS A VETERAN?
It took many years and there were many challenging obstacles but on November 11, 2019, we celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the Veterans Day Parade. As the founding President of The United War Veterans Council, I had worked with my fellow Vietnam Veterans to take traditions that were denied us to create a new institution for celebrating our service. From our earliest demand to be recognized to our completion of national and local memorials to our service, we Vietnam Veterans achieved our own recognition and thanks.
11. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE/LEAST FAVORITE MILITARY OR VETERAN-THEMED MOVIES?
My least favorite is “Full Metal Jacket” — a made up thriller. My favorites are the true-life depictions of our military experience. “Good Morning Vietnam” for the funny side of the war in the rear areas of Vietnam. “Born on the Fourth of July”, showing the sorrow and madness that fighting in war can cause. “Taking Chance”, a recent story of how we account
for our killed in action and honor their sacrifice.