When driving veterans to their medical appointments in the area, Harold Burt, 71, listens to the “old guys’ stories.”
A veteran himself, Burt served in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1969, spending some of that time stationed in Japan. Most of the stories the Longview resident hears have some connection to the military, since he’s a volunteer driver with Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network. That means Burt spends one to two days a week in the summer shuttling veterans from Longview to medical appointments at Veterans Affairs locations in Washington and Oregon.
Burt has been driving for more than six years now. It’s a highlight of his week — helping veterans get their medical care.
“It just makes you feel good to do something for somebody,” Burt said.
The problem is that Burt, and volunteer drivers like him, are few and far between in Washington and Oregon. There’s so few drivers currently that Jeff Bele, the Washington state commander for DAV, said he can’t even staff a van in Vancouver. Bele said bringing a van to Vancouver is a high priority, since it’s Washington’s fourth-biggest city.
“That’s our big snag,” Bele said. “We would like to get it, but we need the drivers.”
Bele, who served in the military from 1995 to 2008 and is a volunteer in his position with DAV, said younger people haven’t been as interested in volunteering with DAV as have been older generations, leading to a decrease in drivers each year. He said that Seattle once had more than 150 volunteer drivers. That number has dropped to 30. Drivers are down 25 percent from the last two years in Seattle, Bele said.
Linda Wilson, the DAV Transportation Network coordinator for Longview, had as many as 10 drivers four years ago. She has five now and could use three to four more, she said.
Bele and Wilson explained that people think the process to become a driver is quick and easy, but it requires passing a physical and a background test and having a clean driving record. He said that once people learn about the prerequisites, many of them opt out.
“You have to want to do this and you have to have passion for it,” Bele said.
Wanda Janus, the supervisor of the DAV transportation program in Portland, said Portland has four drivers, and that she has to make sure not to overwork them. Janus said she ideally needs 10 to 15.
“We’re afraid we’re going to burn them out and lose the ones we have,” she said.
There is a VA shuttle bus that runs between the Vancouver and Portland locations all day, so Janus said that getting veterans to the Vancouver campus is important so they can ride the shuttle.
“For some veterans, they are not physically or mentally able to deal with public transit. Or someone may not live within convenient distance of public transit,” Janus said. “It’s hard for them to get to their medical care.”
Bele, who has permanent brain damage from his time serving, said the shortage makes him sad, because he knows how complex the medical system can be, and he knows how helpful it is when you can get rides to appointments.
“If you want to give back to your community and the veterans that served our country, and their families, and help them make their appointments and get the medical care they need, come and try to be a driver,” Bele said. “That’s the greatest thing we could have.”
© 2019 The Columbian
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.