Retired U.S. Navy Master Chief Ken Cowen can be found on most days building a deck, walkway, or installing windows and doors for a customer. Shortly after retiring from the Navy in 2014, Cowan and his wife moved to Lake Gaston, where he is now the owner and operator of KC’s Home Maintenance, which is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
Cowan’s service in the Navy started when he was 24 years old, almost on a whim. He was living and working different jobs outside of Jamestown, N.Y., and woke up one day and decided to enlist. He shipped out to Basic Training in San Diego on Feb. 1, 1984, and retired Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day.
Coming from a military family, Cowan’s older brother also spent 30 years in the Navy as a SEAL. His dad is also a veteran.
His first ship was the USS Forrestal, a super carrier that made a history of its own after a tragic fire in 1967. He spent his first five years as a pit snake, manning the generators and air evaporators down below.
“It’s hot. There were times we went dead in the water and had to switch out watch teams every eight minutes,” he said. “It was 140 degrees.”
Cowan’s experience is unique in that he was enlisted and serving before and after the 9/11 attacks.
He said that before 9/11, it was a little more laid back. After 9/11, it really tightened up.
Cowan was in the shipyard in Norfolk, Va., when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He was running the Maintenance Support Center. He told his guys that they could have the TV on but just the news, no TV shows. His guys came into his office and said, “Senior Chief, you’ve got to come out here. They’re bombing us.”
His first thought was, “I said no TV, just news,” which then became, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“The captain came on and instructed the men to secure everything,” he said.
Everyone was instructed to go home and see their families. He knew when they were coming out of the yards that they were getting ready to get underway.
Because of the repairs they were doing in the shipyard, he didn’t deploy right away, but deployment came soon enough.
After the orders came down, they went out to sea and waited for word to come down.
“You’d see the planes leave fully loaded,” he said. “They would come back empty.”
That was in 2001.
Cowan was deployed six times for 6-10 months at a time. He also spent several years on shore duty doing Navy recruiting. He said he was really good at it, ending up top recruiter of the year back-to-back, number two and three in the nation. The Navy wanted him to stay on as a career recruiter, but it wasn’t for him.
When you’re on the ship, you get into a rhythm between drills and working.
“You don’t know when you’re going to get called up,” he said. “You’re always ready for it, but hoping that it’s not going to be before you have to.”
He talked about going to the Bahamas a couple of times and even pulling into Mardi Gras because the captain on the Forrestal knew the mayor of New Orleans.
“We went up the Mississippi River and pulled pier side to what was like a mini-mall. We put the brows over and walked off,” he said. “That was back in 1986.”
Cowan and his family got their first house at Lake Gaston after vacationing here about 21 years ago. He was told it’s one of the areas best-kept secrets. They bought their first house here six months later. His current house in Wildwood Pointe is his third on the lake.
Veterans Day marks the armistice signed between the Allies of World War 1 and Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. To Cowan, a younger vet (59) by WWI standards, Veterans Day is to recognize everyone out there now that has served.