Healing Powers

Operation Black Sheep helps struggling veterans find support while working on a Vietnam War-era boat restoration project
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A look at the Patrol Boat-River during its service in Vietnam, and Robert Bowyer in Afghanistan. // Photos courtesy of Keith Gottschall

If there’s one word that can be used to describe 40-year-old Robert Bowyer, founder and CEO of Operation Black Sheep in Muskegon, it’s “dedicated.”

With a genuine desire to work with military veterans suffering from PTSD, Bowyer created a unique way to help them deal with their disorder and heal.

After serving in the U.S. Army for 15 years and with two tours of duty to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Bowyer experienced challenges of his own when he returned home and tried to reintegrate into everyday American life.

When he accepted an offer to go for a boat ride with another military veteran and friend, Bowyer was immediately drawn to the boating lifestyle and the peace he found while on the water.

Bowyer interviewed Vietnam vets while in college for his senior thesis. Many said they still hadn’t felt accepted or welcomed home. That experience gave Bowyer the idea that he could use boating to make a difference for struggling vets — but he wanted to provide them with more than just a nice ride.

He decided to look for a piece of military history to help connect with vets suffering from PTSD, and set his sights on a PBR, or Patrol Boat-River, the small, shallow-draft Navy vessels used in places like the rivers of Vietnam. As a result, Operation Black Sheep was born, with a simple mission: To honor, celebrate, and serve veterans, and to preserve history.

Bowyer chose the name Operation Black Sheep (OBS) after hearing the same sentiment from so many other veterans who had returned from tours of duty in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and, of course, Vietnam. “Vets returning from combat told me they felt like black sheep; like they didn’t always fit in with their families and communities,” Bowyer says.

Once he decided on using a PBR for his cause, finding someone to donate one became more of a challenge than he anticipated.

A registry of all the PBRs in the country helped him find vessels that might be attainable for his organization. However, with only 42 boats on record, his inquiries were often turned down or met with amusement. “One guy laughed and told me he would let me have his PBR for $170,000,” he says.

In 2016, digging through the registry led Bowyer to Vietnam veteran and PBR Captain John McClurg, who was working to restore two of the rare boats near Chicago. However, he was struggling to find the funding and the time to complete even one of them.

When the two vets met, Bowyer’s sincerity and commitment convinced McClurg to let him borrow one of the historic boats, U.S. Navy Mark II PBR 7331, to use for the mission of OBS. McClurg agreed to loan out the boat as long as Bowyer promised to stick to Operation Black Sheep’s simple, straightforward mission.

With a borrowed truck and trailer, Bowyer transferred the boat from Chicago to its current home at the Mart Dock in Muskegon, right next door to another piece of military history — the WWII landing craft LST 393.

PBR 7331 needed quite a bit of restoration work, but that provided another opportunity Bowyer could use to reach the people he was committed to helping. Operation Black Sheep began to use the unique, historic craft to help bring peace and healing to struggling vets by putting them to work on the restoration project, or just by giving them a place where they could come and hang out with other “black sheep.”

Operation Black Sheep’s restored Patrol Boat-River docks in Muskegon. // Photos courtesy of Robert Bowyer

By 2017, Bowyer’s commitment to his mission led John McClurg to donate the boat to the organization.

The historic craft attracts everyone from veterans who have done tours of duty on the riverboats to other people who just need a sympathetic ear and a distraction from their  life challenges.

“We provide a safe place for those who are hurting,” Bowyer says. “Whether they’re a veteran, a nonveteran, combat or noncombat, we all have struggles. We all have different battles we’re fighting.”

During the off-season, Bowyer and the Black Sheep crew meet people in the Mart Dock storage building, where the boat’s restoration continued through the winter months. In the spring, the boat will be transferred to a slip in front of the LST 393 for the season, where it is available for tours, rides on Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan, and private events honoring veterans.

Asked if the organization charges for rides or tours, Bowyer says, “We do everything through donations. We ask for your time, talent, or treasures. If you can’t afford to write a check, maybe you can show up and scrub. If you can’t do that, maybe you can just spend time with somebody and talk.”


HOW TO HELP!

More information about Bowyer and the Operation Black Sheep crew, the historic U.S. Navy PBR 7331, and upcoming events where the boat will be displayed can be found at opblacksheep.org, along with ways you can donate and help the boat continue its most important mission yet.

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