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Giving back: Volunteers needed to transport veterans

A DAV Transportation Network van [Photo courtesy of VA St. Louis Health Care System]

Disabled veterans in the St. Louis region are getting a lift, with the help of local volunteers. 

The challenge is finding enough volunteer drivers as the need for their services increases. According to Joseph Braun, Disabled American Veterans [DAV] hospital services coordinator with John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis, the demand for DAV-supported transportation has increased locally over the years.

According to Braun, from November 2017 to the end of August 2018, the network documented 12,857 driving hours, 198,935 driving miles and 3,763 veterans transported in the St. Louis coordinating areas. 

The need is there, but sometimes the volunteers aren’t.

“Some of our areas are down to two drivers, so they can’t accommodate every day of the week,” Braun said. 

According to Marcena Gunter, public affairs and voluntary service manager for VA St. Louis Health Care System, the service area for the transportation network in the St. Louis region spans an 8,458-square-mile radius between Illinois and Missouri, which includes nearby St. Louis, St. Charles and Franklin counties.

“Some veterans don’t drive, and then some of them rely on family members for transportation, and in some cases, those family members have to possibly take off now, so now it’s impacting their financial income,” Gunter said.

The program is a collaboration between the DAV, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Voluntary Service Office. Founded in 1987, after the federal government’s decision to terminate its program to subsidize transportation for medical appointments, the DAV Transportation Network provides nearly 615,000 rides [nationwide] for veterans annually. Those rides provide veterans with safe transportation to authenticated medical appointments or area VA outpatient clinics. 

Volunteers with the program don’t drive their own vehicles. Specialized vehicles are provided through DAV’s partnership with Ford Motor Company. Gunter said community donors also have helped to provide funds to purchase vans.

“[Donated money] goes through the DAV as a collaborative agreement and partnership with various motor vehicle companies, and they’re able to able to purchase these vans at a discounted rate,” Gunter said.

The DAV picks up the partial cost of the vehicles and the cost for gas, meaning the service is completely free of charge for the veterans who use it.

“A lot of veterans and clients just don’t have cars to drive,” Braun explained. “Another big part is that many of those veterans are on a limited income, and some don’t qualify for other services. This service is free.”

Charles “Tom” Howard, a volunteer driver and program coordinator in Washington, Missouri, agrees wholeheartedly with Braun’s assessment.

Howard leads a team of about 10 volunteer drivers that serve the Franklin County area. Monthly, those volunteers log about 134 hours, serve about 33 veterans and travel more than 3,000 miles to make sure veterans get to their appointments safely and on time.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Howard has worked with the DAV Transportation Program for six years and has served in the coordinator position for four years.

“For a lot of veterans out here in Washington, it can be a 100-mile round trip between Washington and St. Louis, and that’s the same for all of Franklin County,” Howard said. “For a lot of these folks, it makes them nervous driving into the big city, or they flat-out just don’t have any transportation.

“I have heard some interesting stories [from the veterans he is transporting]. What they did in the military – and some of these veterans do suffer from post-traumatic stress – but a lot of it is just normal conversation. It’s just somebody helping somebody else out. I thoroughly enjoy it. I look forward to driving.”

Volunteers do have to meet a series of qualifications, including passing a background check and a physical exam. The vans are not wheelchair accessible but can transport multiple veterans at a time, including the addition of caretakers with an authenticated doctor’s note.

According to Gunter, the service hopes to expand its volunteer base and, in turn, reach out to new communities of veterans in need.

“We want to make sure we’re serving them and giving them our best,” Gunter said. “It’s wonderful that we have all these community partners that join with us in making sure that we are honoring our veterans in this special way.”

For more information about becoming a volunteer driver, contact Braun at (314) 289-6443. 

To view a list of qualifying hospitals and health facilities or to inquire about receiving services, visit dav.org.

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