John Grinvalds Editor of the Daily Sun
Leon Hagan began volunteering to drive veterans to medical appointments in Omaha and Lincoln more than a decade ago.
Then the transport van could afford to go whenever the veterans needed it. With a pool of 27 volunteer drivers, going every day of the week wasn’t too much to ask.
“We would brag about who got to drive first,” said Hagan, a Vietnam veteran.
Now the number of volunteers has dropped to single digits.
“There are four of us, and two are out of town, and two are sick,” said Scott Bates, Gage County veterans duty officer. “So we don’t really have any.”
Bates said drive-thru service has been reduced to two to three days a week, increasing the number of hurdles veterans in need of care must navigate.
“One day we do Monday, Wednesday, Friday and the next week we do Tuesday and Thursday,” he said.
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Roger Saathoff, who served in the Marine Corps, is one of those veterans who needs to be driven to his appointments in Omaha and Lincoln. He returned to the California area after suffering from diabetes.
“It got to a point where I ended up developing diabetes, and they ended up taking my leg out,” Saathoff said. “So I came back here because I couldn’t have a job without being able to go anywhere. I found myself with my parents.
Right now, Saathoff has pending appointments to make and said the lack of drivers was worrying.
“If things could work out, hopefully we could expand that so we could have more driving duty days,” he said.
Bates and Saathoff said the lack of pilots signals a generational divide. Some of the veterans who need the driving service were previously tapped to volunteer, and younger veterans are still holding jobs.
Hagan said volunteer driving can sometimes take long days. He described a day he was on the road, between Omaha and Lincoln, and in waiting rooms for more than 12 hours. But he said it was great fun getting to know the surrounding veteran community. It’s a place to crack jokes and help others in need, he said.
“The best compensation you can get is complacency,” Hagan said. “It goes back to a veteran who needed help.”
Hagan said it was also a way to pay for the future. When he is in need, he is confident that the community will rise up to meet it.
“The community is mobilizing,” he said. “If there is a real need there, they will always step in.”
To learn more about volunteering for the Gage County Veterans Services Office, contact the office at (402) 223-1342. Volunteer drivers must pass a physical and background check.