March 24, 2018 — The Florence chapter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is in need of additional van drivers to help transport veterans to medical facilities in Portland and Roseburg.
The volunteer-run program, which provides free transportation for vets to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers in the state, would ideally have 15 drivers for the Portland route and five drivers for the Roseburg route. However, as of now, there are only eight and two drivers for the routes, respectively.
The need for trips is high. With a high population of veterans in the area, coupled with an older population, the trips are a crucial for those needing VA medical care.
“Normally we run five days a week,” Jim Swant, lead driver for the Portland route, said.
But because of the driver shortage, veterans risk losing out on receiving vital medical care.
“If something comes up and I can’t drive, or the other person can’t drive, you’re out of a driver,” said Ken Casey, lead driver for the Roseburg route. “We try to fill in for each, but if you’re out of town, and if you don’t have anyone to back you up, a person’s not going to get a ride.”
“A lot of veterans don’t have the means to get to the hospital on their own,” Swant said. “Some of them don’t have cars, some of them don’t drive. Some of them are too old to drive. It’s a means to get them to their medical appointment, otherwise they would be dying left and right because of lack of medical care.”
The DAV operates a fleet of vehicles around the country providing free transport to VA centers, a vital service for seniors in rural or isolated communities. Florence acts as a hub for the Oregon coast, being the halfway point between Roseburg and Portland.
“We have 21 pickup points,” Swant said about his route. “We go up Highway 101 north of Lincoln City and cut through Otis. We have two pickups there in Otis, and one down the road. Our farthest north pickup is Sheridan.”
Veterans also drive themselves to Florence for the van service, coming from as far away as Coos Bay for the transport.
“Some of them just go up for a routine physical or maybe they have a doctor’s appointment,” Casey explained about the veterans who use the program.
Some veterans only need transportation once every three months for routine checkups, but others need weekly trips. The trips can be particularly important for those needing care after complicated medical procedures.
Because the veterans are often too ill to travel, the van trips are particularly vital when the length of the journeys are factored in. A Portland trip can average 350 miles, with the driver’s day lasting up to 15 hours.
Trips to the medical centers provide a number of advantages to veterans, beyond simple transportation.
“One reason I drive the van is that I get the opportunity to tell veterans what they’re entitled to,” Swant said. “You’d be surprised how many veterans don’t know what they’re entitled to. Some people think that they only get three years of medical care, but it’s not true. They get lifetime medical care if they meet the qualifications.”
The program also acts as protection for veterans against being taken advantage of.
“Back east, there was a time when people were painting vans to look like DAV vans and taking veterans to the hospital — then charging them,” Jim said. “Some veterans don’t know any different, they figured it was a ride and they had to pay.”
The trips also provide an extra cushion of safety for the veterans, where the drivers can facilitate urgent medical care if a problem arises. While the drivers are not allowed to provide medical care to the veterans — they are not even allowed to have physical contact with them — the drivers can contact emergency personnel.
“We’re also authorized to call a sheriff’s or emergency department if something comes up so we can go in there and let them take care of the problem,” Swant said.
The idea of driving veterans to facilities started in Florence before the DAV became involved.
“The program was originally started by Al Stapleton,” Swant said. “He used his own private vehicle. He went through three vans transporting vets to Portland and Roseburg with his own gas money.”
But as the cost of the program ran higher, along with liability issues, the program was taken over by the Florence DAV around 15 years ago. And throughout its existence, the program has received strong support from the community.
“We get a lot of local support from the merchants, like Tony’s Garage,” Swant said. “I told him we needed to get fog lights and I asked him what he would charge. He said ‘I wouldn’t charge anything.’ He asked I drop the van off on Friday night and he would have the lights on ready for the morning, and he did. That’s the kind of support you get from the local area.”
But to keep the program going, they need drivers. As to the qualifications?
“You have to have a pulse,” Swant joked. “Drivers need a valid driver’s license and to go through a background check and a physical and be insurable.”
For drivers like Swant and Casey, the benefits to driving are in the people that they serve.
“You’re just helping your veterans out,” Casey said. “It’s a well-needed thing. I’ve had people try and give me tips, and I say, ‘If I didn’t want to do this, I wouldn’t be there.’”
“They couldn’t pay me to do this,” Swant added.
To learn more about the program, or the schedule a ride-a-long, contact Swant at 541-968-9512.
To become a driver for the DAV, call 541-440-1272 for the Roseburg route, or 541-997-1123 for the Portland route.