By GRACE GADDY
Local veterans have a shiny new set of wheels, as of Monday, when a 12-passenger 2013 Ford van was dedicated to the Disabled American Veterans organization (DAV) in Palestine. The vehicle is used by the DAV to provide free roundtrip transportation for veterans to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals in Temple and Waco.
Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, presented a key to the vehicle to Daniel Dudik on Monday during a ceremony at the Palestine VA Outpatient Clinic. Dudik, chairman of the local DAV Transportation System, coordinates the schedules of volunteer drivers, who operate the vehicles on behalf of the veterans.
Drivers hit the road Monday to Friday, carrying veterans where they need to go. Dudik said without the DAV's free transportation system, several veterans would be in a bind.
“If it wasn't for the van, they'd generally have to get someone else to drive them,” Dudik said — a choice that might determine whether they “eat that week or pay someone to drive them.”
Over the past three years and five months, volunteers clocked in a total of 11,281 hours to transport 3,389 local veterans over a distance of 210,000 miles — that's a gas bill of $169,450 that the DAV footed.
Bobby Zimmerman, chief of voluntary services for the VA, said a new vehicle is purchased every three years or so, or whenever the van reaches 200,000 miles. The old one is then sold and the money from that goes back into a fund to replace the vehicle.
Zimmerman said that federally, the VA provides half of the funds needed to purchase a new van, and local branches of the organization come up with the rest. Dudik said funds are raised through community partnerships, the local VA, the DAV and a Colorado trust fund.
“We all pitch in, and Ford Motors, they build this van for us at a special low cost, and the Colorado fund, they kick in a little money and we spend around $17 to 18,000 for the van,” Dudik said, “roughly half of what you'd have to pay at market value.”
Both Zimmerman and Dudik agreed that the program could use more volunteers, which at the moment has a headcount of 10 drivers.
“We try to schedule them to drive once or twice a month,” Dudik said, adding that without them, the program would not be possible – without people like Johnnie Keeling.
Keeling, a retired superintendent of Elkhart Independent School District, has volunteered for the program since February of 2005.
“I'm not a veteran, but I've always felt that I owe veterans,” Keeling said. “We can never repay them for the time and sacrifice that they make away from their families, and their dedication to the country. And this is a small way for me to give something back. I get a whole lot more out of it than I have to put into it, and it's a joy to carry the veterans — it makes you appreciate our country and the sacrifice that they make when they go over there.”
To become a volunteer, persons must go though an orientation, pass a routine physical, have a clean driver's record and of course a valid drivers license.
The Palestine VA Clinic is located inside the Palestine Mall at 2000 S. Loop 256.