A couple of volunteers are looking for more volunteers to help get veterans in need of medical treatment to their destinations.
In January, the Grand Traverse Area Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 38 took over a program that provides vets free transportation to Veterans Administration hospitals in Saginaw, Ann Arbor and Detroit.
Volunteer and DAV officer Pete Hunt said there is a growing number of veterans in the area who need transportation for medical appointments.
TOOK OVER FROM THE COUNTY
The Grand Traverse County veteran’s affairs office used to schedule the rides, but it was decided that the DAV chapter was better suited to handle the job, Hunt said.
“What it comes down to is they were very busy up there so we took over,” said John Lefler, a volunteer who coordinates the transportation schedule. “There’s nothing negative we want to say about the county. It works out better if we have it, that’s all.”
And it does work out better now, Hunt said. In recent years, the county’s Veteran’s Affairs office was having trouble recruiting volunteer drivers.
Hunt and Lefler said since the DAV chapter took over in January, they’ve focused on recruiting drivers and they’ve found them.
They’ve got eight drivers signed up and certified and six more are in the process of getting approved.
To become a driver, volunteers need to undergo a physical at the Saginaw VA hospital, they need to undergo a background check, and they need to be fingerprinted.
Lefler said he hopes to recruit 30 volunteer drivers to make sure the DAV can cover everybody’s needs.
“People go away on vacation, they are snowbirds in the winter time, some of them drive just once a month,” Lefler said.
TRANSPORTS VETS, DISABLED OR NOT
Typically a little over half of the volunteer drivers are vets. “Most of the volunteers are veterans, but they don’t have to be,” Hunt said.
The transportation service is exclusively for vets, however.
The local DAV members represent a subset of veterans who were injured in the line of duty. There are around 330 DAV members in Grand Traverse County, Hunt said.
The group has experienced a wide variety of disabilities. A lot of DAV members suffer from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, Hunt said. Some of them were disabled in combat; others in training.
“You could have fallen down an elevator shaft in the Pentagon, if you’re on duty, that’s service connected,” Hunt said.
Hunt and Lefler are both “boots on the ground” veterans of Vietnam. They both served in the Army.
VA BETTER THAN IT USED TO BE
Hunt said his view of the VA hospital system has turned around completely since he got back from Vietnam. In those days, he wanted nothing to do with the Veteran’s Administration.
Back then, Hunt said, the VA’s reputation for providing shoddy care was well deserved.
Now, he believes the system is well run and offers good care for vets. It’s better, he thinks, than an ordinary hospital, because VA doctors only see veterans and they understand their needs and problems.
It is also a lot more affordable for veterans to get care through the VA rather than other hospitals, which can charge enough to bankrupt a vet living on disability.
Hunt believes the VA system has really gotten good in the last 10 years, after revelations about the poor quality of care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. became front page news and made the name of that hospital synonymous with the notion that the country was failing to take care of its returning veterans.
Hunt credits politicians and military leaders who came up through the ranks frustrated about the quality of the VA with making changes.
“They’re now in positions of authority to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again, or that it doesn’t happen on their watch,” Hunt said.
LOTS OF NEED FOR TRANSPORT
The need for free transportation from Traverse City to VA hospitals or clinics throughout the state has grown in recent years, Hunt said.
Some of the demand is from veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who need specialized care.
Some of it comes from an older generation of vets who now need more frequent and more intensive care.
And the need for rides has increased in general due to the economy. Tough times in the past few years have made it hard for many vets or their families to afford car trips downstate.
“If you can drive, please let us know,” Hunt said.
The local DAV chapter was established in 1938 for Grand Traverse County, Hunt said. Now that the chapter has taken over responsibility for coordinating transport for all area vets who need it, the group is in the process of changing its name and the area that it serves.
The new DAV will serve Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim counties.
For vets who need rides or anyone who wants to volunteer, go to www.gtadav.us or call (231) 313-9357.