As the mile markers pass by on roads across the state, several volunteer drivers in Valley County have been doing their part to help out local veterans in Eastern Montana. The number of volunteers has started to dwindle down, but the six left have been continuing to carry the torch and hope to recruit new volunteers to help with their passion.
You many have noticed the white vans with the letter DAV across the doors and hood. Some of the drivers are veterans, others are not, but they all have one thing in common: They all want to help out those who have given to their country through the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization. They provide vans that help carry veterans who reside in Havre, Wolf Point, Glasgow and other locations get to doctor appointments in Helena, Billings, Miles City and Great Falls.
Only two vans are in Valley County, and another van is in Malta. A total of 22 vans are coordinated through Billings to help provide a service for those who served.
The Valley County volunteers started in August 2008. Leon Pearce explained that he had been involved for most of the time they've been around. Sandi Mason has been volunteering for about three years, and her other half, Ed Mason, had already been volunteering.
"Vets that are too old to drive, they can't drive or they can't afford to buy a vehicle get rides in the vans," Walt Watts, a volunteer said. Watts has put in 50,000 miles in the last six years. "We're passionate about what we do."
Watts explained that many of the passengers are in need of doctors appointments, and because we live in such a rural area the miles can add up. Gary Fast, the local coordinator, explained they are in more need for volunteer drivers as their number has dropped from about a dozen to half a dozen. He said that drivers get a meal card and stay at a hotel sometimes as the travel can last a few days. But the more volunteer drivers available, the less time is needed per individual.
"DAV gathers funds to buy the vans and the VA (Veterans Affairs) matches the funds," Fast said as he explained how the program was funded. "When the van is ready, the VA will own the van until it reaches a certain mileage, that's when DAV takes ownership and they auction the vehicle off, or trade them for new vans."
The vehicles provided become familiar to the drivers. A few of them have their favorites and don't like to let the vans go. Fast said that around 14 veterans are transported each month and around 50 veterans use the service near and in Valley County. The drivers track the hours and miles in the vans and they collect pins and badges for their time and miles served.
While there isn't any monetary incentive to volunteer, those volunteering said the reward was knowing they helped someone else. Sandi Mason explained that she's been on a three-day trip, a trial of sorts for the area and the hours and miles might add up, but the rewards aren't seen.
"The biggest reward is when someone who really needs the help get it and they say thank you," Sandi Mason said.
Phil Wilson, a new driver to the organization, stepped up recently to fill the need and to pay back others who have served. He was talked into the volunteer position, but said that it was a way to recognize vets who deserved it. He explained he himself is a combat veteran who spent time in Vietnam and he wanted to give back and help those who may not have had good life opportunities like he has had since his service.
Pearce added that he's going onto 100,000 hours of service and he wears his many pins with honor. He explained that drivers who have time available are most helpful and could be anyone in the community. Fast added that he could work with anyone's schedule.
For more information or to volunteer, you can reach Fast at 406-392-1466.