AP NEWS

Volunteers wanted to transport disabled vets

March 12, 2019

HUNTINGTON - Volunteer drivers are being sought as the state transitions back to working with the national Disabled American Veterans nonprofit to provide veterans transportation to VA Medical Centers in the state and dissolving the state program that provided stipends to the drivers.

“We are seeking individuals to volunteer at least one day a month to drive veterans to medical appointments so we can ensure they have access to the healthcare they need and earned,” said Dennis Davis, cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance.

Davis said there is no maximum commitment of days or time to be a volunteer driver.

“This is for disabled veterans primarily around the state that cannot drive and need someone to drive them to appointments at the VA Medical Centers in the state,” Davis explained. “Toward that effort we are launching a joint program with the DAV to provide transportation assistance to veterans who need it.”

Davis says West Virginia is returning to its partnership with DAV to provide transportation to the VA medical centers in Huntington, Clarksburg, Beckley and Martinsburg. Beginning July 1, 2019, the DAV will use its volunteer network to provide drivers at no cost to the state, he said.

Davis said on average about 500 veterans a day need a ride to one of the state’s VA hospitals.

Prior to 2014 West Virginia was a member of the DAV transportation network, but was not allowed to continue to be in the program if the state paid drivers, according to Davis.

“The state tried to operate the van transportation program on its own for a while, which provided a stipend to drivers, but that didn’t work out too well,” he said. “The state program did not have good oversight.”

Davis said as he reviewed the state’s transportation program, he found several problems. The vans were being used to pick up people other than veterans, like athletic teams. The vans were also being taken across state lines to pick up veterans in other states.

Davis said he also found that the transportation vans are old and the state cannot afford to replace them while still providing a $65 to $75 stipend to paid drivers. He said the state will use the stipend funding to help buy new vans, along with assistance from the DAV program.

Initially, West Virginia will purchase four new vans. Also, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said he will also recommend to the Legislature that they provide funding for six additional vans. Each year more vans will be purchased until all have been replaced, Davis said.

“It’s been made clear to me some drivers who were paid the stipend wanted that to continue, and I understand that, but it created difficulties because we couldn’t afford to pay stipends and replace the vehicles,” Davis said. “I saw one (vehicle) the other day that was a 2001. Veterans deserve better than that. Going down the road in clunkers is not good.”

The switch from the state-operated veterans transportation program hasn’t come without some concern.

Earskel Caul, a U.S. Army veteran and officer for the West Virginia Disabled American Veterans, said to stop paying the drivers was not fair to the veterans of the state.

“What they don’t realize is this program has changed from 15 to 20 years ago,” Caul said. “Back then, you had job where you could retire. Veterans could give some time to other good causes. The environment we are in this state where most of the plants are shut down, people haven’t had an opportunity to retire and live the life they think we live. They need the money.”

Caul said for just $650,000 a year, 125 drivers currently cover the whole state, into the hills and hollows to save lives of veterans who otherwise could not make it to the doctor.

“To be able to get the amount of vets we have now in this program is going to be very hard to replace,” Caul said. “People aren’t going to get up at 4 a.m. to drive eight hours a day for nothing.”

Caul also took exception to the idea the vans were being misused, claiming some of the vans had been auctioned off with the decals still on them.

“Take us in the Huntington Tri-State,” he said. “We go into Kentucky and Ohio. We have to.”

There are roughly 30 individual drivers at the Hershel Woody Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, according to Randy Coleman, chief of staff and communications director for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance.

Davis said the state will continue to pay the stipend to paid drivers until the new, joint program with DAV is launched in July.

“Volunteer drivers will drive new vans that we will purchase throughout the state, and they will be dispatched by the VA hospitals,” he said. “So we are currently promoting the recruitment of volunteer drivers for that program.”

Davis said he has no fear they will find enough volunteers to run the program despite the lack of compensation, saying there were more than enough before the state took over the program.

“I’m pretty confident we will get drivers,” he said. “This can be a very rewarding experience for those that volunteer. There is nothing more gratifying that helping a veteran in need.”

The state will continue to pay drivers through the end of June, when the fiscal year ends and the new DAV partnership begins.

“Our goal is to serve West Virginia’s veterans as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Davis said.

Those interested in volunteering to drive can call the Huntington VA facility at 304-429-6741, ext. 2952, or find information online at volunteerforveterans.org.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.