|Bowling prepares patient comfort kits for delivery. Photo by Earl Raglin, Lexington VAMC.|
Troy Bowling, 83, arrives at work in the dark. The halls of the Lexington, KY, VA Medical Center are quiet at 5 a.m., but Bowling knows an army of volunteers, inpatients, and staff members will surge through the building once the sun rises. They'll need coffee, 200 cups' worth, so he wastes no time in busying himself at the coffeemaker.
A Purple Heart recipient and World War II Veteran, Bowling volunteers at the medical center five days a week. As the coffee brews, he unlocks the door of the Voluntary Service office, flips on the lights, switches on the computer, and begins to compile volunteer data, an integral task that keeps the Voluntary Service office organized and humming.
It's a full day, seven hours in all, filled with filing, processing new volunteers, and assembling packages of personal care items to make new hospital inpatients more comfortable. Sometimes Bowling travels to Veteran organizations to speak about volunteering and to recruit new volunteers for Lexington.
He is done by noon and leaves to visit his wife at a nursing home.
Sixty Years and 65,350 Hours
What keeps Bowling motivated to volunteer day after day? Without a pause, he replies, "It keeps me alive. It keeps my body moving and my mind operating. It's done more for me than anything in the world."
He's humble. Bowling has volunteered for the VA and other Veterans' organizations for nearly 60 years, racking up more than 65,350 volunteer hours. Sometimes people don't find out he's a Veteran or about his harrowing military experience for years since he simply shows up to work, day after day, and gives selflessly.
"Troy is a remarkable individual," said Greg Anderson, Chief of Voluntary Service at VA Lexington. "He's well-respected and loved. He is an icon at the hospital."
Anderson nominated Bowling for a prestigious prize, the George H. Seal Memorial Award, which is presented by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization. Bowling won. "His sense of dedication is truly exceptional," said Anderson. "I thought it would be a great way to honor someone who had served, who came close to losing his life."
Left for Dead, Another Chance at Life
Bowling joined the U.S. Marines at 17. At 19, he nearly died on the beach at Iwo Jima. Bowling, unconscious, was reported as killed in action. He had been shot in the chest and lost so much blood that he appeared lifeless. For hours, he lay bleeding on the sand until a combat photographer noticed him weakly stirring and called for a medical team to evacuate him to a landing craft.
Medics were treating Bowling's wounds on the ship when he heard faint cheers outside. Marines had taken control of Mt. Suribachi, celebrating their victory with a flag-raising that is now immortalized in the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph.
"I asked the chaplain to take me topside to see, and he did," said Bowling. "At that sight I knew that we were going to take that island. It was a great moment."
Representatives from the DAV came to visit Bowling as he recuperated in a VA hospital when he was back in the States. He saw how the organization was helping other Vets, so once he regained his strength, he asked how he could assist them.
|Bowling meets with Voluntary Service staff. Photo by Earl Raglin, Lexington VAMC.|
"You're Helping Somebody. Now That's a Great Feeling."
The DAV trained him to be a service officer and for the next 38 years, he helped Veterans and widows file claims for VA benefits. Later, he became involved with special recreation activities.
Bowling rose through the ranks to become the State Commander for the Kentucky DAV. "I've held probably every position in the state," Bowling laughs.
Bowling volunteered in these positions as he worked full-time for the United States Postal Service until his retirement almost 20 years ago. Since then, he's volunteered at VA Lexington in the Voluntary Service office.
"People still thank me after all these years," said Bowling. "I don't always remember their names, but they'll see me and holler at me. You realize you're helping somebody. Now that's a great feeling."
"We've had a steady stream of people who come in or call, all looking for Troy," said Anderson. "It's hard to imagine how many Vets he's helped in the claims process and how many volunteers he's recruited over the years.
"Probably no one else here is more respected," he added. "People know Troy is particularly committed to Veterans because he isn't receiving a salary. Volunteering is his way of paying back."
Sixty-five years ago, Bowling swore that if he survived Iwo Jima, he would dedicate himself to helping other Veterans. He still carries the bullet next to his spine, a physical testament to the promise that he keeps every day.
"I was saved for a reason," said Bowling.
By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer