Paul Bowers Sr. served as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, but his fellow soldiers in the fields and jungles of Vietnam just called him Chief.
“Since I was a Seminole they thought I knew everything because I was from the swamp,” Bowers said. “They had me walk [up front]. But it was a different swamp; it was more of a jungle and had lots of rice patties.”
Bowers’ service began in 1967 at boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and ended in 1970 in Vietnam.
After eight months in Vietnam, his eardrum was ruptured and he was honorably discharged.
But during those months on the ground he demonstrated courage, strength and leadership.
His first time in the field took Bowers and his company to the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.
The Viet Cong shot at the American troops and used mortars. Unfortunately, the machine gunners there were taken out. Bowers’ sergeant ordered him to pick up one of the machine guns and keep on going.
“That’s how I got stuck with a machine gun, an M60,” Bowers said. “My MOS (military occupational specialty) was a grunt or warrior.”
He said since he was Indian, the troops had him follow an escaped wounded Viet Cong soldier into the jungle.
“I heard an AK go off and I hit the dirt,” Bowers said. “Three guys behind me got wounded, but they called out ‘Hey Chief: are you still alive?’ I don’t know how I got out of there, but they missed me and we kept on going.”
That excursion led to the discovery of a tunnel, into which they threw grenades.
Although U.S. troops weren’t supposed to go into Laos, many of them did, including Bowers and his company. As usual, Bowers was up front.
“I saw some tripwire lines attached to mines and stopped the rest of the guys,” he said. “I saved the whole company.”
Bowers has plenty more stories to tell about his military service. One day someone yelled his name from a passing truck and it turned out to be fellow Seminole John Wayne Huff.
“He got out of the truck to see me,” Bowers said. “The next day he came back and we talked and talked all day. We talked about Brighton and different things. I never saw him again until I got home.”
And then there is the story about the bear.
A spotter plane told them something was coming their way so Bowers was sent up front with his machine gun.
“I heard something in the bushes. I was kind of scared,” he said. “It was a black bear, but I shot it anyway. I was hungry so I got some of his leg and cooked it. The other soldiers wanted some, too. I told them to go get it. When you’re hungry, anything tastes good. The next morning there was nothing left but skin and bones.”
Being in Vietnam was challenging and Bowers, like everyone else around him, just wanted to stay alive and get home. His ticket home came at a price, though.
His platoon had to cross a minefield, so instead of walking, Bowers rode on a tank. The tank ran over a mine, which blew up right where he was sitting, causing his eardrum to rupture and leading to the honorable discharge.
Bowers was sent to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville and from there went home to his parents on the Brighton Reservation.
He earned two Purple Hearts for being wounded by enemy fire, but only received one of them.
Jobs were nonexistent, so Bowers traveled to Hollywood to find work. His skills as a machine gunner didn’t open any doors for him, so he took a job at the Indian Village wrestling alligators.
When a gator took a finger, Bowers left and got a job as a day worker for ranchers near Big Cypress and Brighton.
That led to working as a cowboy for the Seminole Tribe’s herd, which he did for a long time.
In the 1980s, Bowers started his own herd in Big Cypress and has been doing that ever since. He also served as the Big Cypress Board Representative for about a dozen years.
He met his wife Charlotte Tommie at the rodeo.
They have been together for about 44 years and have two daughters, Clarissa and Pauletta, and two sons, Wilson and Paul Jr. Bowers considers Charlotte’s daughter Cathy Alexander as one of his own, too.
Today, Bowers tends to his herd; he has about 100 head. He also is an avid carver and sells his sculptures at a variety of events.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Paul Bowers Sr. served as a colonel. He served as a corporal.