Drivers needed to help area veterans get to health care appointments
It’s a way to give back and support those who served.
The Syracuse Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center and the DAV Transportation Network of Central New York promise to leave no veteran behind — but right now they need some new volunteers to make sure that happens.
Volunteer drivers are urgently needed to help bring local veterans to their health care appointments.
For more than 30 years, DAV VTN, with the assistance of caring volunteers, organizations and businesses throughout Central New York, has been providing free transportation to veterans to receive life-enhancing and life-sustaining medical care.
“This is a tough road for veterans of modest means or those unable to drive themselves to their appointments,” said Marine Corps veteran William “Bill” Gleason, DAV VTN regional recruitment officer. “With your help, we can smooth their path to better health. After all, these are men and women who have given so much to our country, isn’t it time to give back?”
Gleason, who has served as a recruitment officer since 2005, said there has been a shortage of drivers to support the DAV VTN since the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to 2020, DAV VTN had up to at least 230-240 drivers in the region and today, that number has dipped to around 116, he said.
“I’ve been here since 2005 and it still blows my mind that at one point we were up to about 300 drivers,” Gleason said.
Veterans residing in Central New York who need a ride to appointments should call Gleason directly at 315-425-4343. A DAV VTN coordinator will then contact the veteran seeking services to help schedule their ride. DAV VTN has been around since 1986 when Congress eliminated all funding for the Veterans’ Beneficiary Travel Program, which reimbursed veterans for transportation costs to medical facilities.
“A coordinator who takes in-coming calls from veterans will coordinate rides from the 15 areas we serve,” Gleason explained. “Then the coordinator calls a driver in their area to drive that day. The coordinator emails the driver the names of the people he or she needs to pick up, and when they get that, the driver calls the veteran and says who they are and that they’ll be picking them up for their appointment.”
The convergence of the Syracuse VA Medical Center and the DAV Transportation Network of Central New York operates the largest veteran transport system in the country. In 2018, they transported approximately 1,700 veterans per month to their VA-approved medical appointments. The effort is supported by less than 250 volunteers who give their time to ensure that the veteran population within the vast area of almost 14,000 square miles, comprised of 14 counties, gets the medical care they need.
When it comes to volunteer drivers, “We’re constantly encountering shortages. Even in the best of times, we are hard pressed to fully staff our 14-county catchment area expanding through Southern, Central and Northern New York,” said Gleason. “Let’s face it, with the average age of our drivers well over 60, many of our volunteers go south for the winter or have other priorities, and as the golden years creep up on us, volunteer work becomes more difficult to commit to.”
Areas served by DAV VTN include Rome, Binghamton, Norwich, Utica, Cortland, Auburn, Oswego, Massena, Syracuse, Ogdensburg, Potsdam, Clifton-Fine, Mohawk Valley, Lowville and Watertown.
There are 42 vans in the DAV VTN network, Gleason said, with the majority having suffered long New York winters and many miles. The aging fleet needs constant maintenance, repair and replacement, he said.
“Many of our vans should have been taken off the road a long time ago,” the regional recruitment officer said. “But we continue to use them provided they are mechanically sound and safe for travel.”
“We as volunteers need to go out and get donations for these vans — they’re not given to us,” Gleason said. “We put a lot of time into recruiting people to give us money and this year we were able to raise $22,000. Then the national DAV provides a certain amount of money for the vans, and Ford gives us a good deal. And despite all these shortcomings, we persevere. Our mission is to ‘Leave No Veteran Behind.’”
On several occasions, DAV VTN has been forced to turn down veterans’ requests for rides to their VA medical appointments. Too often, DAV VTN lacks the personnel to pick up veterans in many of the service’s remote locations, Gleason said.
“Much of the area we cover is not serviced by any form of public transport, which means without the VTN, many of these veterans cannot get to the medical care they so justly deserve,” he said.
Currently DAV VTN is looking for drivers who are available at least one day a week, or even one or two days a month.
“We work with people who are snowbirds who come back and work for us during the summer,” Gleason said. “We’re also looking for office people for scheduling when they call us here at the Syracuse VA Medical Center for services.”
Eligible drivers must be 21-years-old or older and have a valid New York driver’s license. They must also have their COVID vaccine and be prepared to wear a mask when they come into the VA medical center and when operating the van for now, Gleason explained.
Drivers must provide their name, address and telephone number for contact information. A volunteer will be sent a packet of forms they must fill out and sign, and then agree to come to the VA Medical Center one day for about two hours. Gleason said during those two hours, the volunteer will be given a physical to make sure they are fit to drive, they will receive a driving orientation, and then they will be fingerprinted and have a background check performed.
Gleason said the oldest driver in their fleet is 83-years-old, and some volunteers include retired school bus drivers.
“I was in Vietnam and Desert Storm, and I’m lucky I’m here and have the ability to give back,” the 79-year-old Marine Corps veteran said. “The Marine Corps always said, ‘Take care of the buddy, and he’ll take care of you,’ and I will never forget that. These veterans are our nation’s heroes.”
For more information or to volunteer, call DAV Driver Recruitment Officer Gleason at 315-425-4343. Drivers do not need to be veterans in order to participate.
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