Vets need drivers for medical appointments
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Ray Mitchell's Thursday routine is pretty predictable each week.
Leave his Youngstown home by 5 a.m. Drive to the Greensburg Recreational Center to exchange his personal vehicle for a van. Make stops at several locations in Westmoreland County to pick up veterans with various doctors' appointments. Follow his GPS to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Oakland. Wait for veterans to finish their appointments. Drive back to Westmoreland County. Return home just in time for dinner and the evening news.
A second driver, Tom Patterson, follows a similar routine every Monday and Tuesday.
It's a schedule both retired men have maintained religiously for the last five years.
But they only have each other to rely on whenever illness or vacations disrupt it.
In a county with nearly 37,000 military veterans -- second in Western Pennsylvania to Allegheny County's 50,000 -- Westmoreland officials say these two volunteers are the last line of defense when it comes to getting vets to their doctor's appointments.
"It's something where no matter what you do, if you are turning people away, you can always do more," said Matt Zamosky, Westmoreland County's Veterans Affairs director. "I would really like to be at a point where I didn't feel behind the curve if one driver couldn't drive on any given day."
But with only two volunteers running a single van three days a week, Mr. Zamosky said turning veterans away is inevitable -- he averages between four and 10 veterans each week.
He noted that Westmoreland isn't alone in this battle. Allegheny County, which also runs a free van service for its veterans, lost its only volunteer driver due to medical reasons this spring. The county hasn't run its service to the VA hospital since April.
"Getting vans is never an issue," said Bill Anderson, Disabled American Veterans Hospital coordinator. "But getting drivers is always an issue."
Mr. Anderson noted that severe cuts in public transportation also have added to the frustration of trying to get Allegheny County veterans to the VA hospital, despite a closer proximity to the medical complexes.
Mr. Mitchell, 66, said it was a call for volunteers about six years ago that motivated him and a friend to sign up to become van drivers in Westmoreland County.
"We were both retired school teachers and both veterans," said the U.S. Army veteran who served a tour in Vietnam. "We thought it would be a great way to help [other veterans] out."
But it didn't happen overnight.
Mr. Mitchell said it took nearly six months to get the physical, medical clearance, background check and training required by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs -- which owns the vehicles -- to become a driver.
He anticipated more volunteers responding to the same call for help.
But the only volunteers were him, his friend and Mr. Patterson.
"Tom immediately said he'd take two days, my friend took Wednesdays and I took Thursdays," he said.
Then his friend had to step down for family reasons. It left two drivers to cover all of Westmoreland.
"It would be nice to have more drivers," Mr. Mitchell said. "Just so we don't have to rely on each other so much."
Mr. Zamosky and Mr. Anderson agreed that the lengthy approval process has been part of the challenge in getting more volunteers.
"Yes, the timetable of running two or three months before we get someone behind the wheel is a deterrent," Mr. Zamosky said. "But [the VA has] cut that time down considerably."
Volunteers still have to undergo the same physical examination and background checks, but Mr. Anderson said he has trimmed the time to as few as three weeks in hopes of keeping volunteers interested from the time they sign up to the time they sit in the driver's seat.
"Sometimes, when it takes longer than a month, [volunteers] figure we are not interested, so they go off to someplace else," Mr. Anderson said, "and that is something I have no control over."
It was almost the case for Mr. Mitchell.
"I remember we were a little frustrated it was taking so long," he said, but he doesn't regret his choice to volunteer.
"When you do something good, you feel good about it," he said. "I'm really glad I do this. I really enjoy it. I get to talk to other veterans, we don't get personal with them ... but I do ask them about what service branch they served in and what they did and where and I tell them what I did."
If you live in Westmoreland County, contact the Westmoreland County Department of Veterans Affairs at 724-830-3530 or 724-830-3532.
If you live in Allegheny County, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital Service Coordinator/Volunteer Transportation Network at 412-360-6957 or Debbie Goral in the volunteer office at 412-360-3990.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:00 am