AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR --
When fifth grade math and science teacher Chris Bowser steps into his western Pennsylvania classroom, he focuses on his students’ learning needs.
While deployed to the Middle East, Capt. Chris Bowser steps into the office focusing on the needs of military members of an international coalition fighting to defeat ISIS.
Bowser is a Pennsylvania Air National Guard officer serving in the Coalition Coordination Cell at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Here, he helps ensure military members from partner nations fighting alongside the U.S. get what they need to do their jobs. Those duties range from helping them find a place to eat and sleep, to ensuring they have computer access and integrating operations with the U.S. Air Force.
The CAOC oversees air and space operations in support of U.S. and Coalition military objectives in the Middle East, including Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. More than 70 nations are working together to defeat ISIS, and Bowser helps 17 of those nations – including Great Britain, France, Germany, Qatar and New Zealand to name a few – integrate with the U.S. Air Force to fly and fight alongside one another. In total, he supports more than 250 Coalition members.
Nearing the end of his six-month deployment, Bowser sees similarities between teaching and serving as the deputy chief of the Coalition Coordination Cell.
Bowser explained one classroom challenge is that students have different learning styles and develop at different paces. Bowser said the challenges of working in a Coalition include differing political mandates, military objectives and capabilities, not to mention cultural differences and communication barriers.
“A lot of times working with Coalition partners is like teaching in that our partners have needs that have to be met, both as people and as military members,” Bowser said. “When I reflect on my teaching career, that’s what I do. This just happens to be outside the classroom setting.”
“In terms of bottom line, foundational things, the Coalition members utilize our office to enable them to accomplish their mission,” Bowser said. “So we have to point them in the right direction or facilitate them getting from point A to point B and everywhere in between. All militaries worldwide have their own doctrine and processes and we need to massage that into one cohesive team with in the CAOC.”
Beyond the gravity of achieving military objectives and providing basic support, there’s the added challenge of communicating effectively.
“A lot (of) times you run into language barriers,” Bowser said. “I have to understand exactly what they’re asking, what’s their ultimate goal or desire. I may also have someone who may be fluent in English or who may speak very broken English, so that’s really the first hurdle.”
Bowser’s supervisor, also a Coalition member, commended Bowser’s performance and support to the Coalition.
“Capt. Bowser has been a credit to his unit, family and the U.S. Air Force with his work here,” said Wing Commander Brendon Clark, a Royal New Zealand Air Force officer. “Testament to his effort is that all Coalition personnel in the CAOC know his name and where he works. He has been a fantastic link man and has made a very positive contribution in the fight against ISIS.”
For Bowser, overcoming these challenges while deployed are easier because of his classroom experience, but also because he’s been training for this his whole life.
Service runs in the family
Three-quarters of the Bowser family children serve in the Air National Guard. Bowser, a logistics officer, and his younger brother both serve in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing at Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station. Bowser’s twin brother serves in the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 118th Wing in Nashville.
Given that their father served in the military for more than 20 years, it should be no surprise Bowser and his brothers serve as well. That they serve in the Air Force, is perhaps, a bit surprising because their father served in the U.S. Army as a Ranger, then as a helicopter pilot, retiring as a chief warrant officer four.
Yet his own advice steered his sons to the Air Force.
“Our dad said, ‘Take my advice and go Air Force, whether that’s active, guard or reserve. You’ll go better places. You’ll be treated better’,” Bowser said. “But at the end of the day, he’s just proud that his sons are serving something greater than themselves.”
Bowser said he and his siblings were aware their father served in the military, but not until they grew older did they understand the significance of their father’s 25 years in uniform.
“We knew (about their father’s service) from a child’s standpoint. Dad had a flight suit, and so it was fun to put on a flight suit and play Army,” Bowser said. “As we got older, we gained that sense of pride and a mentality of service.”
But in the end, the choice was up to Bowser and his brothers. They each began as enlisted Airmen and have since commissioned as officers.
“Our dad never pushed military service on us. He presented it as an option if we so chose,” Bowser said.
Serving as a Citizen Airman
Like many military Airmen who serve in the Air National Guard or Reserves, balancing military service, civilian careers and family life can be challenging.
Bowser has deployed six times in 15 years, but this deployment brought some unique challenges for family and career.
Bowser and his wife of five years have two young sons, and this is the first time he’s deployed as a father. Fortunately, like Bowser’s mother when he was a child, his wife serves her family in her own right: as a stay-at-home mom. Despite previously working as a highly-trained and skilled respiratory therapist at a neo-natal intensive care unit, “serving” from home was her choice, Bowser said.
This is also Bowser’s first deployment since he began teaching at Baden Academy Charter School in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. But, Bowser said the school has been very supportive of his military service.
“My front office has been very supportive. Even though they had to find someone to cover my classroom – which is no small thing – I’ve never gotten any negative feedback from them,” Bowser said. “They were fine with me missing almost all of last school year because they know military service is ingrained in who I am as a person. They understand this is part of who I am.”
The school specializes in integrating the arts – music, theater, drama, painting and sculptures – into traditional curriculum. This method, Bowser said, works for different learning styles.
Bowser admits, however, learning to teach in this style was difficult and stressful.
“I didn’t have the slightest idea of arts integration. I had no passion for art, and I’m a terrible artist. I can’t paint, I can’t draw. To go to an art museum, I can take it or leave it,” said Bowser.
But, just like in the military, he relied on his teammates for help.
“The nice thing about teaching is its very similar to what I do in the military,” Bowser said. “In essence you have a team or a group of people you work with and you play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. What I found was, areas that I was weak in, there were other teachers who were stronger in that, so you start gravitating toward those who are strong in those areas.”
Even while deployed, Bowser kept his teaching skills sharp by managing to find his way into the classroom from time-to-time. To help Coalition members better integrate and plan with the U.S. Air Force, Bowser’s office teaches two planning and liaison courses for Coalition partners.
“These courses are all about building relationships with our partners,” said Bowser, who has helped graduate almost 100 international officers from the courses so the U.S. and their countries can more effectively operate together.
Fortunately for Bowser, no matter whether he’s in his Air Force uniform or in a collared shirt and khaki pants, he’s able to do what he loves.
“My passion lies with teaching,” he said.