About 60 people gathered inside a modest bowling alley recently at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, a military base in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C., to say goodbye to a place that many of them call their second home.
The 40-year-old alley shut down on Aug. 21 because of apparent funding constraints and a steady decline in customers over the past three years. Built in 1979, it needs about $500,000 in repairs to its pinsetters and lanes, according to the installation's public affairs office.
But people who have been bowling there for years, many on a weekly basis, feel hurt and angry about the decision to shutter the alley. To them, it signals a lack of concern for recovering soldiers and their families. They see the alley as one of the few places in the region where civilians and military can mix.
"I know that this bowling alley has saved multiple lives, including my own," said Michael Marquette, a retired Navy corpsman medic who sustained multiple injuries while serving in Iraq. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and rarely leaves the house except to bowl. He even met his wife at the alley.
Marquette sees the alley as a transition zone where veterans like him can take cautious steps back into civilian life. For others, base bowling alleys like the one at NSA Bethesda provide a sense of the familiar amid the uncertainty of war, foreign deployment or recovery.
"It's a constant," said Michael Shannon, a combat veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm. He grew up in a military family and remembers visiting bowling alleys all around the U.S. as a kid.
"The hardest thing is to recover after the traumatic event of a move," he said, "and the best way to do that is [to have] familiar environments and places where you can go and you can have a sense of normalcy out of the chaos."
For him, that meant bowling. The Bethesda alley is one of more than 50 bowling alleys on U.S. naval bases around the world. Shannon has been going to Bethesda every week for about a year with his good friend Ashley Sanders, a civilian, to participate in a bowling league.
Sanders FaceTimed me from the alley on its final night of operation. The Navy denied me access, so this was the only way I could see it. It's the kind of 1970s-era bowling alley with zany, multicolored carpeting and low ceilings. The walls are covered with massive graphics of bowling balls and Navy ships. Most of the 16 lanes were in use on Wednesday, though a handful were broken.
According to Capt. Mary Seymour, the installation's commanding officer, the number of bowlers dropped from around 25,000 in fiscal year 2017 to 22,000 the following year. Attendance this fiscal year was on track to hit 20,000.
About 30% of the alley's patrons last year were military or other eligible government employees. The rest were civilians who applied for special security passes to come onto the base to bowl.
Seymour's primary mission, as she put it, is to serve the eligible beneficiaries of the installation, which includes Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a Defense Department treatment center for service members with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions. She said the alley's visitor numbers pale in comparison with those at the campus's other recreational facilities. The installation's fitness center attracted around 18,000 visitors a month from September 2018 to July 2019, while the bowling alley had about 1,600 monthly visitors during the same period. Plus, for the last 21 months, the alley has operated at a deficit.
However, the alley's supporters argue that funding decisions made by the installation's command directly contributed to its financial woes.
In 2015, the bowling center was made eligible to receive a type of financial support from the Navy called Uniform Funding Management (UFM) funds. These funds are specifically designated for programs that "satisfy the basic physiological and psychological needs of Service members and their families" but are limited in their ability to generate revenue. These types of programs "should receive substantial amounts of UFM support," according to Commander, Navy Installations Command guidelines.
All but three stateside bowling centers received UFM funding in fiscal year 2019. NSA Bethesda was one of the three that did not receive funding.
"It was a command decision not to put appropriated funds towards the Bowling Center because it was losing money," Seymour said in a statement to NPR. "We chose to allocate our available UFM to our viable programs."
Over the past few weeks, the alley's regulars have been sharing their favorite memories of the place. Spencer Donerson Jr., a Navy veteran who served in Iraq and now works at the Walter Reed medical center, started going to the alley about eight years ago to teach wounded veterans how to bowl.
"Some people would be [missing] all but one limb, but they'd still have the spirit to get in there and bowl," he said.
One of the wounded service members he met was a young woman named Beatrice Mahoney. She was recovering from injuries she sustained during boot camp with the Marine Corps. The two fell in love and now have two young daughters together, whom they'd bring with them to the alley every week.
"It's a place where a group of guys and girls can be themselves and know they aren't being judged because they're missing a limb or because they are handicapped in any way," Mahoney said. "I myself don't even know if I'm comfortable going out to another place where I'm not going to be judged."
Alex Padua, an Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, had been bowling at the alley since 1982. For a while, it was the only affordable place for he and his wife to bowl with their two children.
"We'd meet a lot of people with different backgrounds, and they enjoyed coming to the military center," he said.
They'd often have injured veterans bowling in the lanes next to them.
"It's like therapy," he said.
For Michael Shannon, having a place to hang out with his friend, Ashley Sanders, and other civilians has meant more to him as a veteran than someone, say, thanking him for his service.
"We really appreciate that," he said. "But what we appreciate more is the connection we have with each other."
Now that the bowling alley is closed, he's not sure where he'll find that connection next.
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