President Harry Truman, Former VA Secretary Jesse Brown, and 25- year-old Pennsylvania resident Matthew N., share a common bond. They have all participated in the annual Bowlers to Veterans Link (BVL)/Department of Veterans Affairs Bowling Tournament, recently marking its 70th year.
The tournament was first introduced in the spring of 1946 when US troops were returning home from the battlefields of Europe and Asia, and the country was anxious to turn the corner from war. There were celebrations across the land – some big and some small. However, one celebration was truly a celebration of spirit; involving wounded veterans receiving care at the growing network of VA Medical Centers. It was a celebration of triumph over tragedy as they struggled to return to a sport they once enjoyed. The competition, organized by the bowlers of America through BVL, gave veterans a chance to bowl against fellow veterans with similar challenges around the nation. Teams were formed, games were rolled and scores submitted to BVL headquarters. In those days, the final tallies were mailed to the BVL offices and trophies were awarded accordingly.
Today, although much has changed in the competition – scores are posted instantly over the Internet, the divisions have been expanded to meet the changing VA environment and to include a bowling video game – the spirit, and the goal, of the tournament has remained exactly as they were 70 years ago.
“This tournament has a rich history and tradition,” explains BVL Board Chair John LaSpina. “When you look through the archives, it’s clear that this tournament holds a special place in the lives of many veterans.”
The event is conducted each spring, and is open to veterans receiving care at VA Hospitals, Out-Patient Clinics and Vet Centers. Five person teams roll a total of 45 games, which are then submitted to the Bowlers to Veterans Link.
More than 100 VA Hospitals and Vet Centers from coast to coast fielded teams in the 2016 tournament, which runs each spring. Some teams will bowl on lanes located at VA Medical Center campuses, others will head out to commercial bowling centers near the VA facility, and more will compete in a ‘virtual’ environment via video games. Separate divisions for blind, wheelchair and senior veterans help level the playing field, and BVL volunteers around the country will assist VA staff with scoring and coordination.
“The BVL tournament affords our guys the opportunity to continue to compete on a national level in a sport they really love,” says Boise VAMC Visual Impairment Coordinator Valerie Duffy. “This is what they talk about all year.”
Every participant receives recognition from BVL for his or her efforts. The top three teams in each division are awarded trophies at a special ceremony.
VA recreation therapists see bowling as an opportunity for recuperating veterans to participate in a sport that is enjoyed at all levels.
“This is a great opportunity for our patients to be involved in a healthy, active leisure interest while addressing their goals and applying or learning needed skills which improve their quality of life,” explains VA Puget Sound Health Care System’s Rehabilitation Program Manager Kristine E. Goedhard. “The tournament provides an outlet for veterans to have fun and become physically active – no matter what their ability.”
One of the perennial powerhouse teams in the tournament is from the Martinsburg, W.Va., Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Our veterans really love the sport, they’re out bowling as often as they can. It’s a great social exercise – and the tournament provides an opportunity for teambuilding and some friendly competition,” notes Don Stevens, Chief of Recreation at the facility.
“Bowling in the tournament was a lot of fun,” reports Matthew N., who bowled in the event after returning stateside following a tour of duty in Afghanistan. “It was a chance to get out on the lanes and test my skill – it was especially gratifying because our team came in second in our division!”