For all of the turmoil in the past year over delays in care provided at veterans hospitals, there’s another substantial challenge many Middle Georgia veterans face when it comes to getting care.
They need a ride to the VA hospital in Dublin.
Volunteers from Disabled American Veterans drive routes all over the region, but in some places, particularly Macon and Warner Robins, there aren’t enough drivers.
Every Friday morning a single, 12-passenger van makes pickups in Warner Robins and Macon before heading to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center. For roughly the past four years, Warner Robins retiree Stanley Borek has done most of the driving. He said he plans to continue but soon will be taking some extended time off and needs some help.
The bus is typically full or close to it, and sometimes there isn’t enough room for everyone who wants a ride. It’s a hard thing, he said, to leave a veteran behind who is trying to make it to a medical appointment.
“You become friends with these people, and you know what they are going through,” he said.
Chris Hunkel, who coordinates all the drivers for the Dublin VA, said he would like to get multiple drivers for the Macon-Warner Robins route. That would allow for a backup when a driver can’t make it. And perhaps more importantly, it would allow for a second route.
Hunkel said if he could get enough drivers, he would start another route to run on Wednesdays. There’s enough demand for it, and it would help ensure every veteran gets a ride, plus give more flexibility in making appointments. It wouldn’t require another van since the same van could be used.
For severely disabled vets, such as those in wheelchairs, the VA provides separate transportation with paid drivers. But vets who don’t meet the criteria have to get to the hospital some other way. The Disabled American Veterans bus can take only patients who can walk on their own, and the drivers aren’t allowed to give them assistance getting on the bus, Hunkel said.
Vets need a ride for a variety of reasons. Some don’t have a license, some aren’t physically able to drive, and some might not be able to afford the gas.
Terry Wood, an Air Force veteran who lives in Warner Robins, has been regularly using the service for several years.
“I would be in a real bind,” she said when asked what it would be like if she didn’t have the service. “My family would have to lose vacation time to take me.”
Considering the time it takes to drive to Dublin and back, plus the waiting for the appointment, it’s not easy to find a friend or family member to drive her on a weekday, she said. Dublin is about 50 miles by car from both Macon and Warner Robins.
Hunkel admits it’s not the easiest volunteer opportunity. Volunteering for other organizations usually involves flexible hours, and it’s not necessarily a big deal to not show up. But in this case, volunteers have to stick to set schedules, and there’s no going home until the job is done.
Borek said between the two stops, the drive to and from Dublin, and the waiting for everyone to finish their appointments, it’s generally about an eight-hour day. On other routes, it can be longer. The Dublin VA serves a 52-county area, which includes Albany.
Wilbur Rickman, who drives the Albany bus, said it’s about a 14-hour day for him.
Rickman, a Vietnam veteran, said he likes his role, because he has the time and sees the need.
“I lot of them wouldn’t have any other way to get here,” he said as he waited at the hospital for his passengers to finish their appointments last week.
Disabled American Veterans buys the Ford vans as a significant discount, Hunkel said. Ford also donates many vans to the group. Ownership is then transferred to the VA, which provides maintenance and fuel, while Disabled American Veterans provides the drivers.
No special license is required. Anyone interested in driving for Disabled American Veterans may call Hunkel at 478-277-2775. Drivers must pass a criminal background check, a driving record check and have a physical. The VA hospital will do the physical at no cost.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.