New Jersey Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jonathan Bowker’s life has involved serving his community since high school. When he was 17, he began taking classes to become a volunteer firefighter, and after graduating from high school and briefly starting college, Bowker enlisted for three years with the U.S. Army.
Bowker, now 28 and living in Brooklyn, said his experiences with both firefighting and the military were about helping people, something that his mother, Linda, demonstrated for him as he grew up. “She always instilled ‘doing the good thing’ in me,” Bowker said. “To me, helping out when you can and being there for other people is one of the best things you can do. It stuck with me as I got involved with pretty much everything I’ve ever done.”
As an award for his service, the New Jersey Devils honored Bowker as the team’s Hero of the Game on February 6, as the Devils hosted the Washington Capitals.
“My mom was always pushing me for the ‘less harmful’ branches,” Bowker explained of his choice when he enlisted. He took that into consideration, but added that he wanted to be involved close to the action and the choice came down to the Army or the United States Marine Corps. “[The Army] had a job that I wanted to do, so I signed up and shipped out.” Bowker added the Army also gave him a chance to spend time outside of New Jersey, saying “sometimes you just need a change of scenery.” Bowker grew up in Cranbury and explained that he had never before spent time outside of the New Jersey area.
After enlisting in July 2008, Bowker went to Fort Knox, a base famously known for housing a large portion of the United States’ gold reserves, for basic training. Following his initial education, Bowker took further job training to become a forward observer for field artillery.
“With big guns or things that can’t ‘see’ where they are shooting at, I’d determine coordinates and adjust their fire to make sure they hit the proper targets,” Bowker explained. “It’s actually quite simple, but it sounds like a lot of work.” Bowker would be attached to a group of infantrymen and call in artillery support as needed.
Bowker put these skills to use when he was deployed to Iraq in June 2010, where he served until November 2010 when he blew out his knee and was sent home. “It wasn’t fun, but I’d rather that happen than something else,” he said.
Bowker described his time in Iraq as eye opening, explaining that when he first went there, he followed a narrative that vilified Iraqi people. “When I got there, it was actually a quite humbling experience. Not to say there were not bad points, but I saw far more of the good,” he explained. Toward the later part of Bowker’s time there, he said he spent a lot of time working with Iraqi forces in a support capacity. During that time, Bowker’s mission changed as the military shifted from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
After leaving the Army in 2011, Bowker immediately joined the New Jersey Army National Guard. “We have the same responsibilities as the active duty Army, as far as deployments, but we’re also there to aid the state,” Bowker said, describing the National Guard as a more community based service. Like with the Army and with being a volunteer firefighter, the chance to serve drove Bowker’s involvement. “I like volunteering and helping people. I’d like to think I’m more about helping others than myself.”
For his service, Bowker received a number of medals and ribbons, and said his most meaningful one was the Iraqi Campaign Ribbon, which represents participation in Iraq. “Knowing that I was a part of it and knowing that I was there is why it means the most to me.”
Bowker, a longtime New Jersey Devils fan, said it was a special and unexpected experience to be honored by the team. “Being in the military and being a firefighter, I never really did anything to gain recognition,” Bowker said, explaining that a coworker nominated him for the recognition. “I’ve never really viewed myself as being better than anyone else.”