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'Leave No Veteran Behind': Volunteer drivers sought for DAV program

Watertown Daily Times - 12/16/2018

Dec. 16--WATERTOWN -- When Edward J. Rogers left the U.S. Marines in 1991 after four years of service that included deployment to Operation Desert Storm, the lance corporal, left with back issues, had a hard time getting to his medical appointments.

"In my first few years after I got out of the service, I didn't have a vehicle, so I missed a lot of appointments because I had no transportation," he said.

Until he read a small blurb in a local penny saver, the Syracuse resident wasn't aware of the existence of the Disabled American Veterans organization, which was founded in 1920 in Cincinnati as the Disabled American Veterans of the World War.

One of the programs the DAV offers is its transportation network. It operates a fleet of vehicles around the country to provide free transportation to VA medical facilities for injured and ill veterans. According to its website, DAV stepped in to help veterans get the care they need in 1986 when the federal government terminated its Veterans Affairs Beneficiary Travel Program that helped many of them pay for transportation to and from medical facilities.

The vans in the DAV program are driven by volunteers and the rides coordinated by service coordinators, also volunteers, around the country. Its motto: "Leave No Veteran Behind." The program is administered by hospital service coordinators at the VA's 197 medical facilities. Locally, its base is Syracuse.

The service is different from the Veterans Transportation Service, operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has paid drivers to transport veterans who have difficulty traveling to appointments due to disease or disability.

Mr. Rogers started driving for the DAV in 2012. It brought him several rewards.

"As I started driving and talking to the vets, hearing their stories and sharing their stories, I thought it was very therapeutic to sit and talk to these guys," he said.

Now, Mr. Rogers is a DAV driver recruitment specialist, seeking to sign up volunteer drivers. That need is dire.

"I want to raise the awareness that we exist and that volunteering is an option for people," Mr. Rogers said during a visit to the Times' offices. "I think many people have forgotten about volunteering."

Mr. Rogers helps with recruitment in the 16 counties covered by the DAV transportation program based at the Syracuse Veterans Administration Medical Center. That coverage area ranges from Franklin County in the north to Broome County in the south. It has a fleet of 36 donated vans.

He shared statistics reflecting that fewer veterans are being transported to appointments because of fewer volunteer drivers. In its coverage area, overall, the number of drivers is down 21 percent since 2016 and the number of veterans transported is down 23 percent.

For example, in 2016, Watertown, with three vans in operation, had 21 drivers signed up to volunteer and 15 this year. Potsdam, with two vans, had 10 drivers in 2016 and six now.

"Our numbers are declining at a much faster rate than veterans are leaving the area," Mr. Rogers said.

In Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, veterans, in addition to being transported to the Syracuse VA Medical Center, are mainly transported to the following:

--To a clinic on Fort Drum for physical therapy.

--The VA Massena clinic

--The Community-based Outpatient Clinic in Watertown

n The CANI Spine Center and Sport Physical Therapy in Watertown

'a privilege'

Veterans who need rides should note that the DAV volunteer driver service is not a medical transport. All riders must be ambulatory. They're allowed to bring an escort.

Volunteer community coordinators, who coordinate the trips of volunteer drivers, are dotted throughout Northern New York. In Ogdensburg, Linda ("Chickie") George has been coordinating trips for about three years and also volunteers to drive.

"I love to drive," Mrs. George said in a phone interview while she was waiting for a veteran at the Massena VA Outpatient Clinic. "I take people back and forth who are more needy than I am. I have a driver's license, which is a privilege. A lot of these other people don't have a driver's license."

Mrs. George said that veterans may not have a license for various reasons such as medical issues, or a family may just have one vehicle, which the spouse or partner of a veteran uses to travel to work.

Mrs. George, a former certified nurses's aide who is on disability, manages three DAV vans in Ogdensburg which are matched with drivers, which number around four on average.

"I'm the only driver who is full time right now," Mrs. George said. "If the guys can't do it, they can say no. But I can't say no as a coordinator. I'll never do that."

Those trips have included trips to the Syracuse VA Medical Center, with some several times a week.

"I wait down there to see if they're admitted or not," Mrs. George said. "As soon as they're admitted, that's fine. If they're still working on them, I wait there. I don't leave them."

She has also risen at 3 a.m. to get a veteran to an 8 a.m. appointment in Albany.

U.S. Army veteran Donald A. Bell, Madrid, praised Mrs. Jones's dedication.

"She's one of the finest people I've ever met, and not just as a DAV driver," Mr. Bell said. "Her dedication toward veterans is absolute. I can't say enough. I've needed rides, I'd just call her and she'd be there, no questions asked."

According to the DAV Transportation Network and figures provided by Mr. Rogers, as of Nov. 15, Mrs. Jones logged 505 volunteer driving hours this year, covering 16,219 miles with 109 veterans transported and 61 total trips.

"There's not that many dependable drivers," Mr. Bell said. "Chickie does a lot of work up here."

Mrs. George said the program for a driver in the DAV Transportation Network involves more than driving. There's paperwork and record keeping, mainly to make sure people aren't falsifying information "in order to get rides."

driver qualifications

Drivers for the volunteer program don't have to be veterans, although Mr. Rogers said about 60 percent are. Drivers must have a valid driver's license and no alcohol-related driving infractions. The application process includes a security check, a simple physical, a one-hour orientation at the Syracuse VA office and on-the-job training.

The amount of volunteer drivers is constantly in flux, Mr. Rogers said. His 16-county area has approximately 190 drivers on board. The ideal number would be 300.

"Our volunteers are typically retired gentlemen," Mr. Rogers said. "They'd do it for three or four years and then they want to enjoy their retirement. And even though it can be one day a week or one or two days a month, in the winter, we lose a lot of snow birds."

Because drivers operate the program's vans, they are not reimbursed for mileage. In Watertown, the program's three vans are parked at the Veteran of Foreign Wars on Bellew Avenue. Assigned drivers have keys to the vans, which are purchased through donations from the public. Mr. Rogers said it would be idea to be able to reimburse drivers for mileage.

"Some of these guys in the north country, they drive 45 minutes to pick up the van," he said. "Nothing's very close out here. I'd love to do more for them and I'm working on that with other agencies."

The volunteer driver program used to routinely operate Monday through Friday.

"We're so short on drivers that a lot of the days have been cut down," Mr. Rogers said.

In the meantime, requests for trips are likely to increase as passengers take advantage of the "Choice" program.

Through the Veterans Choice Program, a veteran can receive care from a community provider, paid for by the VA. For example, if a veteran needs an appointment for a specific type of care, and VA cannot provide the care in a timely manner or the nearest VA medical facility is too far away or too difficult to get to, then a veteran may be eligible for care through the Choice program.

Veterans must receive prior authorization from the VA to receive care from a provider that is part of the Choice network of community providers.

"To use the Choice program, if you can't get in to be seen for a specific thing within three months, or if it's not available near you, within 40 or 50 miles, you can go to a private doctor," Mr. Rogers said. "For example, in Syracuse, we don't have an allergist at the VA hospital. I see a private allergist."

Mr. Rogers added, "We're branching out into things like holistic health, massage, acupuncture and things like that. We take veterans to those appointments."

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