DNWS commandant retires, reflects upon 30 years of service

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bruce Hill Jr.
  • Defense Nuclear Weapons School Public Affairs

The Defense Nuclear Weapons School, established in 1947 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., said goodbye Aug. 28, 2020, to its 30th commandant.

Col. Mark E. Bowen, who entered the Air Force in 1990 as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch officer, ceremonially retired here after 30 years of service, the last four as the school’s commandant.

As the leader of DNWS, Bowen ensured the school effectively educated, trained and supported all agencies and responders to a nuclear or radiological incident or accident. During his tenure, more than 100,000 students attended in-residence or took online DNWS courses. He gives credit for many of his achievements to those he worked with along the way.

“Several events in my career benefited me as commandant,” Bowen said. “I started in ICBMs and learned how the operators do the mission at the ground level, which served as a great start to my career. In the nuclear enterprise, you have to follow the written directives, no matter what. You have to comply with guidance until it is changed, and that mindset needs to be instilled in education and training across the force.”

Growing up in the nuclear enterprise, Bowen was able to see how many organizations operated and succeeded, which helped him make the DNWS even more successful.

“Early in my career, I got to spend time with Minot (Air Force Base) maintenance teams in the field, observe what they did and how they did it at that level. Then in my first joint assignment at U.S. Strategic Command, I got the ‘big picture’ perspective, beyond the operational unit level. That was very helpful. I followed that with assignments in Space Command and acquisitions, which helped me be a better officer and manager of the Defense Nuclear Weapons School.”

When Bowen arrived at DNWS in 2016, following his command experiences, he says he understood the direction to take the school and what the product needed to be as part of a combat support agency. The legacy he leaves at DNWS benefits the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force. He said he leaves with many good memories.

“I don’t believe there’s a bad assignment out there,” he said. “It’s the people that make the difference, and every part of the mission is important.”

Maj. Gen. Christopher E. Craige, the commander of the Air Force Personnel Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, presided over Bowen’s retirement ceremony. He and Bowen have known each other for the past nine years.

“He is a man of extreme character,” Craige said of Bowen during the ceremony. “Leader, mentor, friend. That’s what I would sum up for Mark.”

The general said he would see Bowen care about Airmen as though they were family.

“That’s what sets you apart,” he said.

At DNWS, Bowen said he was repeatedly pleased and impressed by the caliber of people who came to work every day. Whether leaders, instructors, or support staff, he said everyone mattered when it came to meeting the school’s mission, which is to provide education and training in the nuclear enterprise and countering weapons of mass destruction in support of joint service and interagency organizations worldwide. He said it’s the effort of the individuals that makes the school better.

“Every day, our people made the instructional materials better and more relevant,” Bowen said. “They reached back to their communities from both recent and past assignments to understand the current needs of the operational forces. The expertise of our people is a big part of the DNWS ‘claim to fame,’ and we do our jobs exceptionally well. Not only because we can teach, but because we listen to what the customers and organizations need and then deliver it.”

An example includes the continuing effort to increase the school’s relevance, particularly to the radiological and nuclear communities. Since the “RN” portion of CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and high-yield Explosive) is DNWS’ so-called “bread and butter,” DNWS staff seeks to discover training gaps in the radiological and nuclear fields and then works to fill those gaps.

“If you want RN training, we are the best in the DOD,” he said.

One organization asked the DNWS to produce a course that highlighted the life of nuclear weapons and the historical processes to keep track of and secure the weapons.

“We ‘opened doors’ for them to better understand how the DOD addresses, maintains, and secures nuclear weapons,” Bowen said. “The course had immediate impact and helped improve current and future operations across the organization.”

Although officially retired, Bowen says he’ll continue to support the school.

“Mr. (Vayl) Oxford (Defense Threat Reduction Agency director) is very vocal about including allies and supporting Combatant Commands,” Bowen said. “I’ll continue to open those doors with U.S. Central Command, U.S. Pacific Command, and even in areas where nuclear weapons are not their ‘bread and butter’ but they need to be prepared for conventional/nuclear integration and associated transitions. DNWS will do some great things in the future, preparing our forces and leadership with information that will make them more effective in the nuclear arena.”

To finish a full career in the nuclear enterprise, and at a school that the DOD deems as the premier DOD military multi-service and joint CBRNE training facility, seems fitting. It speaks to his dedication and desire to serve the country, even beyond his time in uniform.

“I’m honored to have served our nation for 30 years,” Bowen said. “My family is the reason why I served -- to maintain that freedom that we all enjoy. My service to God through my church certainly helped set me up for success, and to be a colonel and a commander was an extraordinary experience.”

“I will cherish it all for the rest of my life,” he said.