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Army recruiter John Dow’s ‘full-circle’ service experience made him the man that he is today

From left, Dennis, John and Steven Dow the day before John was deployed overseas in April 2002. (Photo provided)

From left, Dennis, John and Steven Dow before John was deployed in April 2002 (Photo provided)


By Jonathan Coffman
KyForward intern

John Dow’s mother asked him an important question as he neared the end of high school: How did he plan to pay for college?

His family would not be paying for it, so Dow found a solution. At 17, he enlisted in the Army Reserve on Jan. 7, 1999.

At the time, he couldn’t have imagined how much the service could impact his life. Dow was raised in Radcliff, just outside of Elizabethtown. His father served in the Army, and his paternal grandfather served in World War II. His mother’s father served in the Korean War. Dow grew up surrounded by respect for the military due to nearby Fort Knox.

But Dow had no intention of serving long-term. He hoped to complete his time with the reserve, pay for college and then move on to an occupation. When he was deployed as an Army Reserve welder after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, his perspective changed.

Dow spent the majority of his time overseas in Uzbekistan, a central Asian country that borders Afghanistan. He worked at a small engineer base as the only welder on-site. Residents received U.S. government checks to perform duties on the base – and would thank the servicemen often for being there.

“They were just so thankful for us to be there because the Taliban (were) oppressing them,” Dow said. “They had no freedoms. They couldn’t do anything.”

Dow said the experience opened his eyes. Seeing Uzbeks be so thankful for pay – pay that Dow said was worth much less in the United States – reshaped his thinking about the freedom he enjoys in his home country.

“I can walk outside and go play golf every day if I want to on the weekends,” Dow said. “(You can) do all these things that you know you’ve taken for granted when you see these people being threatened with death by the Taliban just for walking outside.”

The value of “the little things” that come along with freedom, Dow said, became a tangible reality while spending the majority of his time overseas in Uzbekistan. After his first trip overseas, he returned to college for one year at the University of Kentucky but was reactivated after that year.

The second deployment helped to solidify values that were taking shape after witnessing those locals at the base in Uzbekistan. Dow decided he wanted to make a career of the military and decided not to return to school.

Dow recalls the contrast between life in the United States and Uzbekistan with pride during holidays such as Independence Day.

“Coming from a military family and community, it’s always been a pretty big holiday just because of that,” Dow said. “But it makes you appreciate the independence that we have as a country.”

John Dow in May 2008. (Photo provided)

John Dow in May 2008 (Photo provided)

Over 16 years later, Dow does not regret his decision to go full-time in the Army despite his original doubts.

“In reality, I ended up loving it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Dow said. “The path that I’ve taken has been kind of crazy. I’ve done almost every job that I wanted.”

After his time in Uzbekistan, Dow returned home to serve as a drill sergeant at Fort Knox, becoming an active member of Radcliff’s proud military community. Serving as a drill sergeant was something Dow said he had always hoped to do in the service.

In November 2010, he became a recruiter in Waterloo, Iowa, a position in which he was able to guide young people interested in the service. The position completed the circle for Dow, who once wanted to enlist for a single purpose but found a larger cause.

One of his proudest moments, he said, came while he served as a recruiter in Iowa, as he helped a recruit prepare for a qualifying exam for the service. The young man came from a difficult home situation and could not wait to graduate from high school.

“He wanted to be in the Army so bad,” Dow said.

The recruit lived two hours from the recruitment office. Dow drove back and forth to work with him. The student failed the introductory test the first time. Dow’s investment paid off when the student passed on his second attempt.

Dow returned home to a message that brought him near tears.

“It read, ‘Hey Sgt. Dow, thanks for doing this for me. Everyone else has given up on me. I really appreciate you sticking with me.’”

Dow said, “All the extra hours of work and the driving, the butt chewings and all that. This made it worth it.”

The day the young man enlisted was his “happiest day ever,” Dow said. Helping young people with a lot of pride in enlisting is something Dow looks to accomplish with recruits. His role is to help them make an educated decision on whether enlisting is for them.

Dow does not have children, but said he would like to someday. He has dated his current girlfriend for about a year. Dow said he would not want to put children through the constant travelling that he experienced as a son in a service family.

It would mean something to him if his children chose to serve, he said, but he would take the same recruiting approach with his children.

“I would encourage them to serve if that’s something that they would have interest in,” Dow said. “As a recruiter, I just want to help them make the most educated decision.”

Dow said the recruiting he does now as a health care recruiter for the U.S. Army Recruiting station in Lexington is much different than recruiting for enlistment.

Dow can help medical students earn scholarships to continue their education while serving for the Army. Some recruits for enlisting are there because they don’t believe they have a choice, he said.

Recruiting and other departments in the Army outside of combat remain a significant part of the service’s effectiveness, Dow said.

“I’ve never fired a bullet at anyone in the name of freedom, but technically I’m a part of it,” Dow said. “I’m not the tip of the spear, but definitely somewhere down on the handle.

“When I first started recruiting, I didn’t really realize how much people appreciate that until I put a few people in the Army,” Dow said. “Knowing I could help, I realized this is a pretty awesome job.”

Enlisting in the Army can be a life-changing decision. When Dow enlisted, he intended to get in and get out. Now 16 years later, he’s a sergeant first class tasked with guiding young people in a position he once found himself.

He said that he was always patriotic and believes serving is “the ultimate sign of patriotism.” But Dow never could have imagined the impact the service would have on his life.

“It might sound cliche, but it’s really helped me become the man I am today,” Dow said.


Jonathan Coffman is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky

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