The West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance is seeking at least 100 volunteer drivers at each of the state’s four VA hospitals — in Beckley, Clarksburg, Huntington and Martinsburg.
With nearly 150,000 veterans in West Virginia, 75 percent of whom are age 50 or older, transportation is a much needed service.
“Lack of transportation is the No. 1 reason many veterans don’t receive health care,” said Dennis Davis, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance.
Davis said West Virginia was part of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Transportation Network in the late 1980s, but in the mid-2000s, the state swapped to a stipend system.
"We ran into financial challenges with the program, and as a result, we need to return to this program," Davis said. "It's an outstanding program operating in all 50 states. West Virginia was the only state paying a stipend."
He said the DAV wants to stand on its reputation of being volunteer-only.
With the elimination of the stipend, DAV Coordinator Mack Hagerman said the Beckley VA lost half of its drivers — only 12 of 24 remain on board.
"I need 12 drivers a day, five days a week, so I need 240 drivers per month," Hagerman calculated. "I have 12, plus some in the process."
He said he was especially concerned about the loss of drivers in more rural areas, such as Wyoming and McDowell counties.
"I need drivers desperately. Tomorrow, I'm sending people from Beckley to Bluewell, then up to Nicholas County."
David Morgan, a DAV driver for more than 12 years, said he's been part of the program before and after the stipend.
"Before they started the stipend, we couldn't get drivers," Morgan said. "Now we're doing away with that, and I understand that, but we're liable to go back to where we were."
He said he hopes area veterans can be educated that this is not a guaranteed service, "because a lot of them think it is."
"It’s not a benefit that’s guaranteed by the VA Administration," Secretary Davis emphasized. "But the DAV wants to step up to the plate to help veterans who have difficulty getting transportation."
Morgan is hopeful recruiting efforts will be successful.
"I do this because I love to do it," he said. "We're transporting America's heroes."
Although no stipend is provided, the VA does provide a meal ticket for volunteers who provide four hours of service. Soon, volunteers who provide eight hours of service will receive a second meal ticket.
"We're asking volunteers to drive one day per month," Davis said. "You can do more if you want, but that's all we're asking."
Volunteers must have a valid driver’s license, must be 21 or older, must pass a physical exam, and must be able to be insured as a driver (personal insurance is not required).
"We want someone who would like to help other veterans," Davis said of volunteers. "This is an excellent way to give back."
He said some folks who were unable to serve in the military find this service especially rewarding.
For more information, visit DAV.org.
— Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren