Local veterans van in dire need of driversVolunteers sought for trips to Sioux Falls VA hospital.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
To volunteer as a Disabled American Veterans van driver, contact Davison County Veterans Services Officer Steve McClure at (605) 995-8619.
The Marines used to say they were looking for a few good men.
Local veterans have a new spin on that slogan: They’re looking for a few good drivers.
Davison County Veterans Services Officer Steve McClure said the van that regularly takes area veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Sioux Falls is desperately short of drivers.
“Right now I’m down to three,” McClure said. “I had to drive the other day because we had no available drivers.”
When that happens, he said, it takes time away from serving other county veterans.
The driver shortage has come up during weekly Davison County Commission meetings at the courthouse, and local veterans groups have put out the word that drivers are needed, but the response has been insufficient.
McClure said 34 vets used the five-passenger van in January. More would have used the free transportation, but drivers couldn’t be found for four trips and bad weather canceled another.
“These are people who can’t drive anymore, but they need to get to their medical appointments,” said David Lloyd, 65, of Mitchell, who drove the van for four years until a bad hip forced him to take a break.
Lloyd has already had one hip replaced at the Sioux Falls VA hospital.
“It got to the point where I was in worse shape than the guys I was hauling down there,” he said.
Lloyd’s other hip will be replaced soon. After rehab he might consider taking another turn behind the wheel.
He began driving out of gratitude.
“I just wanted to give back,” Lloyd said. “A few years ago, I had a hip that was giving me trouble and I didn’t know how I was going to get it replaced.”
He then recalled his naval service during the late ’60s and early ’70s. A check with the VA determined he qualified for medical services and a hip replacement.
Lloyd is convinced there are other drivers with spare time who can pitch in, and more drivers would prevent volunteer burnout.
“The fewer drivers you have, the more just a few drivers are asked to drive,” he said. “You don’t have to be a veteran to volunteer.”
Time commitment required
Virgil Schoenfelder, 78, also of Mitchell, has been a volunteer driver for nearly a decade.
“They asked me if I would drive and I said I would. I did it because I was a veteran, too.”
He was also forced to hang up the keys a few weeks ago when he had a knee replaced. He worked full-time at the Mitchell National Guard for 39 years.
Both men say volunteering requires a serious time commitment. The van leaves Mitchell early each day and must occasionally stop at nearby towns such as Alexandria and Salem to pick up vets in need of a ride.
Drivers must wait at the VA during the day; they can’t take the van for personal errands or side trips. Occasionally, vets must be given secondary rides to other medical specialists around Sioux Falls.
The waiting’s not so bad, Lloyd said.
“You can read, swap stories, and get to know veterans and other drivers,” he said. “There’s no reason to be bored.”
The Disabled American Veterans, the van’s official owner, gives all drivers a voucher for a free meal at the VA cafeteria.
Locals cover half of cost
The DAV began its transportation program in 1986 in Sioux Falls with a single used van, DAV Transportation Coordinator John Huntington said. The program now owns 28 vans that run from outlying communities. The DAV owns the titles to the vans, but counties and communities that use them pay for half the van’s cost.
Davison County VSO McClure said the local veterans’ groups and service organizations donated the $13,500 (that amount is now $13,800, said the DAV) needed to get the most recent van, the county’s second. It has already racked up more than 80,000 miles.
Gasoline and service expenses are covered by the DAV through a federal grant.
Huntington understands that getting a large pool of qualified and available drivers can be difficult, but the program has worked well.
Drivers must be fingerprinted and pass a physical exam.
“Lately we’ve been having problem with getting drivers who can pass physicals,” Huntington said.
The hope is that more Vietnam vets will step up and take over the driving duties.
“We don’t really want to pay the drivers. We want it to be a volunteer system,” Huntington said. “We want it to be a free program.”
County Commissioner Denny Kiner, who retired as a colonel from the South Dakota Army National Guard, has submitted his driver application.
“I can’t complain about others if I’m not willing to step up to the plate myself,” he said.
David Lloyd hasn’t regretted his choice to become a driver.
He said the vets he drives are interesting, polite and grateful, and he gets back as much as he gives.
“When you do something like this, it makes you feel good,” he said.