They’re all veterans, and many of them have no other way to get to the VA Hospital in Birmingham, according to Paul Brouillette.
Brouillette, a Vietnam veteran, is the volunteer coordinator for the van program of the Disabled American Veterans group.
He lost two volunteer drivers last week and needs at least four more, Brouillette said. He’s down to just four now, and it’s difficult to make sure local vets get to the care they need with so few drivers.
Brouillette, 73, and his wife, Caroline, both drive the van, and he said he’s not likely to stop anytime soon.
“I’ll drive that van over here to the Anniston Memorial Gardens to my funeral,” he said. “I love these veterans.”
There’s a large pool of residents in Calhoun County who may need the VA’s services. According to the most recent U.S. Census estimates, there were 11,564 veterans in Calhoun County, or about 9.8 percent of the county’s population. That’s slightly higher than the 2012 statewide figure of 8.4 percent.
Brouillette helped start the Calhoun County program in 1997. Other DAV van programs are spread across the country, part of a nationwide initiative begun in 1987 to help vets who did not qualify for VA travel benefits.
In the 15 years since it began, the program has helped about 21,000 veterans, logging 487,000 miles with more than 37,000 hours of drive time.
The program is run on donations and with money from the DAV. After fuel, van maintenance and the cost of one lunch each day for the driver, the program has spent about $95,400 since it began. That’s a cost of about $4.54 per round trip to Birmingham for each vet.
On average, the drivers take seven vets each day of the week. Last month the program helped 149 vets.
For many years there was no VA clinic in Calhoun County, Brouillette said. Instead, vets had to wait for a single weekly visit from a VA doctor.
The opening of the Anniston/Oxford VA Clinic filled a great need, Brouillette explained, but for many of the more complicated medical procedures and tests, vets must travel to the VA Medical Center in Birmingham.
The service is on its third van, and will soon be soliciting donations for the fourth, Brouillette said. He’ll need about $13,500 for the new van.
“And I’ll take it in pennies, nickels and quarters,” he said.
Some of the vets are regulars in the van, and the drivers get to know them well over the many shared miles, Brouillette said.
There are a few younger veterans from the Gulf War who make use of the van, but most are older. Young vets often have cars and the ability to drive them, Brouillette said.
“I take World War II veterans, Pearl Harbor veterans, prisoners-of-war vets. We take them all,” he said.
It takes about six weeks to complete the qualification process to become a driver, and a background checks and physical are required. Those interested in volunteering can contact Paul Brouillette at 256-820-0248.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.