Marine Finds Peace, Purpose

Veteran Offers Brothers In Arms A Final Honor

Courant Staff Writer

November 10 2006

In Vietnam, Rick Kowalker was known for firing 100-round torrents from his machine gun. He and other U.S. Marines had been taught to squeeze short bursts from the M-60, but Kowalker "thought there was a psychological advantage in keeping the air full of hot lead," his buddy and fellow combat veteran Ron Fieseler said.

Today, Kowalker, 58, finds advantage in a far quieter service that still keeps him close to his brothers in arms.

In a peaceful cemetery Monday, the Marine veteran led his horse, Melody, behind a hearse bearing the body of a fellow leatherneck. Kowalker's polished brass and black shoes gleamed under the bright sun as he stepped a steady distance behind the long, black Cadillac carrying Joseph W. Thurston, a Korean War-era veteran, to his grave. Melody, a brown Morgan, bore an empty saddle and boots set backward in the stirrups, a traditional honor for a fallen fighter.

The burial ceremony in Southington was Kowalker's 40th this year, and he says he will continue the riderless-horse service for the foreseeable future. Disabled by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Cromwell man said he's found a way to honor his fellow veterans, serve their families and take something for his own well-being.

"It's part of the healing process for myself," he said, "to put some closure on what happened in Vietnam."

Kowalker was an orphan who lived in various places in Connecticut until he was adopted as a young boy. He grew up in Newington and joined the Marines at age 17 in 1965. He served in Vietnam from April 1968 to May 1969, 12 months and 20 days of frequently intense combat for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.

Fieseler, a Texan, joined Cpl. Kowalker's machine-gun squad in August 1968.

"Rick was really good," Fieseler said. "Several of us new guys showed up at the same time. We were there because they had taken a lot of casualties....I think he really did a good job helping us understand how to react when things happened over there."

Gary Rigo, another Alpha Company veteran from New York state, said Kowalker saved his life. Rigo recalled a nighttime firefight on Jan. 30, 1969, 14 miles southwest of Da Nang.

"The enemy started to probe our lines, and basically the **** hit the fan," Rigo said.

Rigo was shot in the leg and fellow Marines came to help him. One was killed and another severely wounded. The enemy was firing rocket-propelled grenades, and the fight was too hot for a helicopter landing. Under constant attack, Kowalker drove a small utility vehicle called a Mule down to Rigo's position, loaded him and other wounded Marines and ferried them to safer ground. Kowalker had never driven any vehicle before, Rigo said, so he was grinding the Mule's transmission and couldn't get it out of first gear. But he did it nonetheless.

"Rick was a very brave and fearless Marine," Rigo said.

For Kowalker and many or most of his buddies, Vietnam was a strange and horrible place.

Fieseler said he'll never forget Kowalker's comment when they were posted by a river one relatively peaceful day. The time and the place reminded Fieseler a bit of camping out and hunting in his native Texas.

"He turned to me and said, `The first thing I ever hunted was humans.'"

Kowalker had been ordered to take a routine recreational leave in December 1968. On Dec. 7, his unit had fought another hard battle and taken many casualties, Rigo said. Kowalker, he said, felt intensely guilty that he had not been with his fellow Marines.

"I said, `Look, it's not your fault,' and it wasn't, Rigo said, but Kowalker wasn't able to let it go.

Kowalker left the service in 1969, then rejoined from 1972 to '74, when he served as a Marine drill instructor.

He was discharged bearing a Purple Heart and a scar from a slight wound he suffered in Vietnam, but a much larger, festering hurt in his soul.

He returned to Connecticut and worked for about five years as a security officer at the Long Lane reform school in Middletown. By the late 1970s, however, "PTSD was catching up to me," Kowalker said. "I was starting to get really angry about things - not that I was hurting anybody, but I saw that day coming."

So he took his dog and headed into the mountains of northern New England, where Kowalker said his focus was on "keeping myself from falling apart."

He returned to Connecticut in 2001 and supported himself with government disability checks, but he was sleeping too late and had little direction. Rigo, who worked for years as a veterans counselor, called Kowalker "a classic PTSD-type guy. When I first met him again several years ago at a reunion, he could hardly talk."

About two years ago, Kowalker bought Melody, a former show horse. He wanted a reason to get up early and return some discipline to his life. He quickly bonded with the horse and started riding her every day. Then last year, with a full beard and 30 pounds heavier than he is now, Kowalker attended a fellow Vietnam veteran's funeral.

During the ceremony, Kowalker said he flashed back to the funeral of President John F. Kennedy and the picture of the riderless horse following the caisson. With the war in Iraq in full swing, he seized on the idea of providing the same honor to his fallen fellow service members.

The tradition is tied to centuries-old beliefs that a warrior's mount should follow him into the afterlife. Today, it signifies that the warrior has taken his last ride. The U.S. Army provides the service at Arlington National Cemetery, but only to those who have reached the rank of Army or Marine colonel or above. (As commander in chief, the U.S. president also is accorded the honor.)

Kowalker, however, provides the free service on his own to all ranks. Raymond Carrier, commandant of the Marine Corps League in Connecticut, said the egalitarian riderless-horse program may not be unique in the nation, but it is rare.

Kowalker today is a trim man with close-cropped white hair and pale blue eyes. His expression seems to vary little - somewhere between flat and apprehensive. He's not effusive but far from blank.

He already has stories to tell from 10 months of funerals. A woman approached him at one ceremony and said, "You know, the boots are in backwards,'" Kowalker said. "I said, `Oh, thank you.'" While researching the riderless-horse tradition, he wanted to know what rank he could give his horse. He learned there were no restrictions, so Kowalker, who left the service as a buck sergeant, or E-5, made Melody a sergeant major, an E-9, and had the golden chevrons with the star in the center sewed onto her red saddle blanket.

"Until the Marine Corps shows me a horse who can do a better job, she's a sergeant major," he said.

Calm and steady, the 21-year-old former show horse has the perfect disposition for the work, Kowalker said. He appreciates her and babies her. On the way to the Southington funeral on Monday, he bought Melody two plain doughnuts. He keeps a supply of horse biscuits in one of the empty boots.

Credit To Melody

On Monday in the early afternoon, man and horse in full military gear waited at the cemetery gates for the funeral procession to arrive. Diane Grenier, Joseph Thurston's daughter, said that her father served in the Marines from 1948 to '52, and the Corps was the foundation of his life. Grenier said she was deeply moved by Kowalker's service and knows her father would have appreciated the honor.

"It takes a lot to bring me to tears," she said. "I could hardly turn into the driveway [of the cemetery]. I was blown away."

Kowalker has provided the service at some funerals for service members who were killed in Iraq, and that's part of the reason he started it.

"I was sick of seeing the body count on TV and not being able to do anything," he said.

But he's not prone to political statements, and it's hard to know what he thinks about the war. As for the riderless-horse service, Kowalker gives more credit to Melody than himself.

"The horse," he said, "is the one making the statement."