Parents Remember Their Son, The War Hero

Vietnam Memorial replica coming to Payson


When Robert and Sue Owen of Payson look through old photo albums and scrapbooks, they see the little boy they raised to be a kind and loving person. They see the boy they raised to become a champion athlete. They see the boy who would become student body president.

What they don't see is the soldier who died of a drug overdose while serving his country in Vietnam.

John Wilson Owen's name is one of the 58,213 that appear on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and on its scaled-down replica that tours the country, and will make a four-day stop in Payson May 4 through May 8.

Etched into the granite on the memorial are the names of nearly 60,000 military men and women who died during the war, between 1964 and 1973.

The shiny black surface reflects not only the faces of family and friends who hunt for the names of loved ones, but also the decades of grief they feel for their loss.

When the Owens find their son's name on the wall, it will bring back the cloudy circumstances that surrounded John Owen's death.

They don't doubt that he died of an overdose --the autopsy proved that.

But they know in their hearts that their son was not a drug user.

"Johnny was a bright boy," Sue says, beaming as she thumbs through an old high school yearbook. "He was a tiny boy, but he was known as 'Mighty Mo' on the football team because he played with such heart."

Right after graduation, John was called to Vietnam. He arrived in Vietnam as a private; he was shipped home in a box with the rank of sergeant.

"While he was over there, he was in charge of investigating the drug dealers and those who were into drugs in camp," Sue said. Sue said she had to caution him only once about staying away from drugs. Her son's response: "Don't worry, mom. Using drugs is just death on the installment plan. I've got way too much to live for for that."

"In one of the last letters he wrote to us, he told us what he was doing and just said 'pray, pray, pray for me,'" she said.

All the prayer in the world didn't prevent their son from dying of an overdose -- a death the Owens are certain was murder.

"We were in church that morning," Sue said. "It was July 4, 1971, and we were called out in the middle of service." The Owens were greeted by uniformed servicemen who delivered the news of their son's death.

Certain of the kind of boy they'd raised, the Owens immediately began searching for clues, for answers, for some meaning to their son's death. They even demanded a senate investigation, which turned up nothing but the one indisputable fact -- John Wilson Owen died of a drug overdose.

"We know in our hearts, that wasn't the truth of it," she said.

The proof of that resolve came less than two years later.

"It was Thanksgiving week, and we were in California," she recalls. "While we were gone, a young man came to town, looking for information on Johnny.

"He went to the library, where Julia Randall was working. He asked to see any old newspapers they might have, and Miss Randall showed him to the morgue. A while later, she asked if she could help him find something, and he said he was looking for any articles that might have been done on John Owen's death. She showed him the newspaper that had the obituary, but that was about all there was. She told him that there really wasn't a story of Johnny's death. The young man said Johnny was his best friend in Vietnam, and that he didn't just die, he was murdered."

That was the end of the story. Miss Randall didn't get the young man's name, and he never tried to contact the Owens after that weekend.

But, that was all it took to reaffirm what the parents already knew.

And, when they join friends and family at Green Valley Park this May in finding John Wilson Owen's name on the wall --panel 09W, line 116 --they will not feel shame as they trace their fingers across the etched lettering. They will feel nothing but love, grief and immense pride for the son they raised to serve his country.

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