Exactly 69 years ago, 18-year-old Marine Troy Bowling was lying in a hole on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima, critically wounded by machine gun fire and wondering whether he'd ever see Kentucky again.
"I lay on the black sand of Iwo Jima, looked up at the heavens and said, get me out of here alive and I'll serve mankind for the rest of my life," Bowling recalls.
Now 87, he's still living out the battlefield promise he made so long ago.
Bowling volunteers full-time at the Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center off Cooper Drive. Except for a few brief interruptions, he has been a VA volunteer for more than 60 years.
He typically arrives at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. and works until 1 in the afternoon, doing a little of everything, from making coffee to helping veterans fill out forms. The rest of the time he walks the halls greeting people and generally making everybody feel a little bit better.
"It's kept me alive," Bowling said. "I have a lot of health issues. But I keep busy and just try to forget about them."
For the record, Bowling still carries a Japanese bullet next to his spine from that bloody day on Iwo Jima. He lost most of one lung as a result of his war wounds. But he keeps soldiering on.
This month, Gov. Steve Beshear, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray stopped by the VA Medical Center to honor Bowling for the more than 73,000 hours of volunteer work he's done.
Center director Emma Metcalf presented Bowling with a Challenge Medal, a symbol of excellence stamped with the number "69," marking the years since Bowling served on Iwo Jima.
The fight for "Iwo" was one of the last, and bloodiest, land battles in the Pacific during World War II. Marines invaded the Japanese-held island on Feb. 19, 1945. The fighting ended March 26, 1945, after more than 6,800 Americans had died. More than 18,000 Japanese were killed.
The battle inspired books and movies. It also produced one of the war's indelible images: the photograph of six men, including Kentuckian Franklin Sousley, raising the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi.
"The brass told us it would be a three- to five-day operation," Bowling recalled. "But it was a nightmare that went on for over a month."
Bowling, who grew up near London, joined the Marine Corps at age 17. A member of Easy Company, 27th Marines, he was among the first troops to storm ashore on Iwo Jima.
"They hit us with everything they had; I thought the whole island was going to explode," he said.
Bowling survived the first day's fighting, only to catch a burst of enemy machine gun fire on the second day, Feb. 20, 1945. One bullet entered his back, another struck his chest and a third hit his right thigh. Others grazed his left knee and forearm.
Bowling found himself lying among the bodies of other Marines who had been killed. Commanders initially thought Bowling was dead, and the word even got back to his parents before it could be stopped.
"It liked to have killed my mother," he said.
Bowling said he might have been left for dead if he hadn't managed to attract the attention of a combat photographer, who called for help.
Bowling was evacuated off the island and shipped home, although he says it took him four years to recover from his wounds. He still carries the emotional scars.
He began volunteering part-time at the Lexington VA hospital on Leestown Road around 1951, fulfilling the pledge he'd made on Iwo Jima. He continued to volunteer during a 29-year career working for the Lexington Post Office. After retiring, he became a full-time volunteer at the Cooper Drive hospital. He's been going strong ever since.
"He's an icon here," says Desti Stimes, public affairs officer at the VA center. "He has touched so many lives, and continues to do so. He's an inspiration to a lot of people."
When he returned from Iwo Jima, Bowling said, he wanted to do something, but "I had no idea what I'd be led to do until I got back home and got involved with veterans. This is the road I've traveled."
Even at age 87, he wants to stay on that road a while longer.
"I'll keep on as long as the good Lord lets me," he said. "I do enjoy what I'm doing."
Bowling never met Franklin Sousley, the Kentucky Marine who helped raised the flag on Iwo Jima. But Bowling plans to attend ceremonies at Sousley's grave in Fleming County on Sunday, the 69th anniversary of the flag raising.
"The Marine motto," Bowling said, "is Semper Fi: always faithful."
Jim Warren (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @hlpublicsafety.