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Want to support our veterans? Here is your chance

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image The vinyl covering atop the DAV van used to transport veterans to the VA Hospital is showing the effects of sun. Photo Mitch Traphagen

[The van] shows the colors of America. Those colors should not be faded, cracked, nor peeling.

Herb Silbert is on a mission. He is not an extremist on a political mission; in fact, what he hopes for isn’t even for himself. He is on a mission to help a segment of America’s most cherished, yet most vulnerable, population. He just wants to help do something for them, to show his respect for them. And he already does so much.

Nearly everyone says they “support our troops.” And on that sentiment, there should be no expiration date. Those who serve, those who put their very lives on the line for the United States of America, deserve to be treated with respect and provided with opportunities they may have sacrificed in their willingness to sacrifice all, whether they are serving now or served a half-century ago.  When they are in need, their basic needs should be met. Few could or would argue with that.

The motto of the organization known as the Disabled American Veterans, or DAV, is “Fulfilling our promises to the men and women who served.” The DAV provides a variety of services to veterans and their families, but the most visible locally is the DAV van that provides transportation for disabled veterans from South County to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. It is a critical service for the 15 or so disabled veterans in Sun City Center. Without it, adequate transportation options for disabled veterans are limited at best. The hospital is a very long drive from Sun City Center.

In South County, approximately 10 volunteers, with a handful of those volunteering only on a seasonal basis, drive the DAV van to ferry veterans to their medical appointments. The Veterans Administration provides the van and money to run it, but the local DAV chapter is also required to come up with some of the funding through donations. The van is well maintained in most respects, with new tires and new windshield wipers. It does the job that is required of it.

When it was new, more than a half decade ago, it undoubtedly looked good and was a proud emblem serving a proud population. But the sun and time have taken a toll. A vinyl covering atop the van is cracking and peeling, and the van lacks a place for aging, sometimes arthritic, veterans to use as a handhold. The lack of the handhold forces them to accept help from the volunteer drivers, help they may not otherwise need. And, of course, the volunteer drivers aren’t necessarily young men themselves.

Funding is always tight. And after new tires, new windshield wipers and paying for gas, there just isn’t money left for a new paint job, or for someone to professionally install a handle that would make it easier for elderly, struggling veterans to get in and out of it.

“I don’t want to go over anyone’s head with this,” Herb Silbert said, as he pointed out the vinyl peeling from the American Flag emblem on the side of the van. “I told the local DAV chapter about this, but there is just no money for it.  The money comes from contributions. It gets the basic maintenance. I think that’s what the money is used for. I don’t think the VA provides anything for this sort of thing.”

According to John McQuaid of the DAV, the money isn’t there for an upgraded covering or a paint job. He also wonders if the van is worth repainting at all. His primary concern is with both a lack of funds and a lack of volunteers. Perhaps a new van may come some day.

In Silbert, McQuaid has a very dedicated volunteer. He does his normal shift, and, if others open up, he often volunteers for those as well.

“One guy wanted to tip me, and I said I don’t take tips,” Silbert said. “I don’t get paid. I’m a volunteer, and I’m honored to do this.”

Silbert, originally from Philadelphia and now living with his wife in Sun City Center, is a veteran but is not a member of the DAV. He just volunteers his time.

“I would take it home and detail it myself, but it is just so bad,” he said of the van. “These guys deserve better than this.”

A paint job isn’t a huge barrier, nor in the big scheme of things is it even necessary. But it means something. It means something to the veterans and, in truth, to everyone. It shows the colors of America. Those colors should not be faded, cracked, nor peeling.

Perhaps even more importantly, the veterans should not have to struggle to get into the van to go to see a doctor. The volunteers shouldn’t have to struggle to help them. Veterans don’t want help, if it isn’t necessary, but without a handhold to allow them easier access to the van, it simply is necessary.

The van picks up veterans at the North Clubhouse in Kings Point, near the lawn bowling court at the Community Association in Sun City Center, at the Post Office in Ruskin and at the Walmart in Gibsonton.  From there they go to the Haley VA Hospital for their appointments. 

All appointments must be between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. as the driver waits at the hospital for them. It works out well, and for the veterans it is a critical service they could not easily do without. They are all men and women who gave something valuable to their nation while willing to give all. It is the least a grateful nation can do. Silbert and his fellow volunteers are the humble face of that. 

People often say about America that “These colors don’t run.” None of the veterans who use the service ran when the nation needed them. All stood up and served when they were called. At the same time, the colors shouldn’t be allowed to fade or peel, either. The veterans shouldn’t have to hold a hand or brace themselves simply to enter a van that is there to serve them. It could be better. The barrier to making it better is relatively low.

John McQuaid of the DAV is rightly focused on making sure they have the money to continue operating. He is focused on getting the word out to provide his organization’s services to even more veterans in South County, and he is focused on finding more volunteers to help them keep their mission.

Silbert is one of the volunteers. He drives the van. He sees the veterans. Regardless of their method of service, he knows that they are heroes. He knows they deserve better. He would give them better if he could. But he does what he can. He keeps driving them to their medical appointments. He keeps helping them into the van. He feels honored to do so.

“Even if you are somewhat healthy, it can be tough to get in here without a handhold,” he said, flicking at a piece of faded, peeling decal on the side of the vehicle. “This van was dedicated to the memory of a US Army officer, and even that lettering is fading. These guys deserve better than this.”

According to John McQuaid, veterans interested in using their service may call (813) 642-0302 for further information. Anyone interested in volunteering, helping to provide a professionally installed handhold, to repaint or even replace the van, should also call that number and leave a voice mail message. Someone from the local DAV will return your call. The mailing address is 2836 Duncan Tree Circle, Valrico, FL 33594. Any mailed correspondence should visibly specify the Sun City Center DAV chapter.

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