Scott 'Boots on the Lane' pairs disabled vets, volunteers for day of bowling fun

News-DemocratAugust 30, 2013 

— The look on Otis Rice's face said it all.

A wide, luminous grin. And eyes as wide as half-dollars.

Rice, 63, had just rolled his first bowling ball since his left leg was amputated 16 months ago because of vascular problems.

True, he had succeeded in knocking down only a few pins, but that wasn't the point. Just getting to this spot, aluminum cane gripped tightly in one hand, was victory enough.

"I'm disabled. I'm not handicapped," said Rice, an Army veteran from St. Peters, Mo. "I may not be able to do a task as good as somebody, but I'll do it, I'll get it done."

Since getting a computerized, battery-powered artificial leg back in April, Otis has relearned how to walk and to ride a bike.

On Friday morning, Rice began relearning how to bowl, traveling by bus with more than 30 other ex-GIs from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks for Scott's inaugural "Boots on The Lane" bowling event.

Patterned on successful "Boots on the Green" golfing events, Friday's outing at the Scott bowling alley paired up veterans -- many them disabled or suffering from psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder -- with active duty military volunteers from the base.

The event was co-sponsored by the VA and H.E.R.O.E.S. Care, a suburban St. Louis not-for-profit group that helps families of active duty personnel.

For Tsgt. Brenda Roskom, bowling with Rice provided a chance to combine her love of the game with a chance to give back to previous generations of service members.

That the event coincided with Scott's annual Family Day made sense, according to Roskom.

"These guys are our family, too," she said. "They did the whole military thing, we want to give back to them, too. We love bowling. What a better thing to share, bowling experiences with people who've done some of the same things we're doing."

Msgt. John Roskom -- Brenda's husband -- saw a certain symmetry in Friday's event.

Roskom oversees Scott's Explosive and Ordinance Disposal program; he's used his skills as a bomb disposal expert during several visits to Afghanistan and other conflict zones.

"Sooner or later this is going to be me up here," said Roskom, his eyes scanning some of the men in wheelchairs. "I have a dangerous job."

Taking part in "Boots on the Lane" is great therapy, helping the vets get their minds off of the pain of a missing limb or dealing with PTSD, according to Msgt. Roskom.

"I've had bad days of my own," he said. "I know these guys have had bad days of their own."

For Steven Jones, 57, the trip to the Scott bowling alley was a homecoming of sorts. His mother was an avid bowler, and his first paying job was as a pinsetter at a St. Louis alley.

What's more, his mother and father met for the first time Scott, where his father served as an Air Force sergeant.

"This was the first time I ever got the chance to come over to Scott Air Force Base," Jones said. "I always wanted to know where my father met my mother."

Jones, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1980s, rekindled his love of bowling Friday with the help of a special ramp to help bowlers in wheelchairs.

Jones, whose left leg was amputated three years ago because of diabetes, sat in a wheelchair while volunteers helped him load the ball into the ramp, which consisted of a pair of shiny aluminum rails on a set of wheels.

Jones carefully lined up the ramp, patiently adjusting the ball's position. Then he let it roll away. It sailed straight through the pins, knocking down all but two.

Jones' right arm soared into the air in a celebratory pump.

"I love bowling alleys," he said.

The importance of events like "Boots on the Lane" can hardly be overstated, according to John Schmeink, a VA physical therapist who helped organize the bowling event.

"Quite simply, it's the camaraderie," Schmeink said. "They get to tell their stories ...They get to talk about their service days, and they get to rehash old memories. And it's therapeutic for some of our guys."

Ed Saypack, an Army veteran who flew helicopter medevac missions in Vietnam, could not agree more with Schmeink's assessment.

Saypack, 71, suffers from heart and circulatory problems, PTSD and the lingering effects of exposure to Agent Orange. A tall man, he walks with a slight stoop and legs that seem as stiff as boards.

But in the alley he smiled like a man who just found a wad of $100 bills on the floor.

"I thank God for the chance even to be here," said Saypack, of Arnold, Mo. "I miss a lot of the camaraderie. This brings back a lot of good memories."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 239-2533.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 239-2533.

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