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DAV gets assistance with van; group thanks supporters

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image Four of the drivers of the van came to be thanked for their service and to thank donors who gave toward a recent project to raise money to fix up the van. From left are Herb Silbert, John Fiore, Dave Weber and John McQuaid. Photo Penny Fletcher

The Department of Veterans Affairs provides the van and money to run it, but the local chapter must come up with money on its own in order to ask for help in refurbishing or replacing the existing van.

On Feb.  20, The Observer News and The Current ran a story by Mitch Traphagen saying the van that disabled veterans use to carry passengers to medical appointments needed some work, and the response from all over South County was overwhelming. So much so that the veterans held a special thank-you chip, dip, soda and sandwich party in the Sun City Center Caper Room on March 27.

Being a weekday, not all the donors — nor even the volunteers who drive the van — could attend, but those who did said they were only too glad to have had a hand in helping those who do things to help our country’s veterans.

“The story brought in about $3,450 already, and we also have more than $600 pledged and more still coming in,” said John McQuaid of the Disabled American Veterans. A large part of that amount was donated by the local American Legion.

The Department of Veterans Affairs provided the van and money to run it, but the local chapter must come up with money on its own in order to ask for help in refurbishing or replacing the existing van.

“We especially need a hand-held assist of some kind, a bar or handle, people can use to help get into the van,” McQuaid said. “But the outside of it needs fixing up,  too.”

Because of the way the government does its budget, McQuaid said, applications must be made in September to get money (or a new van) from Veterans Affairs. The money is dispensed the following September, he said.

Commander of the local DAV, Mary Ann Keckler, wants everyone to know the van is not just for Sun City Center residents.

Anyone in any area of South County may call to reserve it, she said.

“We stop at the lawn bowling greens in Sun City Center, the bus stop at the North Clubhouse (the large one in front) in Kings Point, at Sun Towers, at the bus stop near the Ruskin post office (in the downtown plaza), and at the Gibsonton Wal-Mart (also at the bus stop),” said Herb Silbert, who volunteers as a driver and one of three dispatchers.

He said a lot of people are under the misconception that the van takes vets only to the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. But they also go to any of the clinics, which are spread over a wide area, especially around the University of South Florida medical complex, he said.

Silbert was one of 10 volunteer drivers, and four more have signed on since the Feb. 20 story, but they can still use more.  

The drivers said the van is kept in good mechanical shape, but the paint on the hood is peeling, and the DAV logo and wording is peeling off.

“It just looks bad, and our veterans deserve to look and feel good about it,” said McQuaid.

Silbert, originally from Philadelphia and a Navy veteran of the Korean War, is not disabled but has spent three years driving the van.

“If you think you’re having a bad day, just ride with me and go into the lobby at the hospital,” Silbert said. “You can watch the veterans come in and out, and I know you’ll feel better. I know I stop moaning when the weather’s bad, that’s for sure, when I see what they go through.”

He said he sees veterans with all kinds of disabilities from serving the country, from amputees to those who have mental disorders. “So many don’t even know that the van is available to them,” he said. “We really appreciate getting the word out.”

The van is six years old and has a total of 92,000 miles on it. That’s not a whole lot, but considering the amount of use it gets and the fact that they must request money from Veterans Affairs and then wait a year, McQuaid isn’t sure if any money raised wouldn’t be better used by buying a new van.

“You should see some of the vans in the parking lots,” said Silbert. “Brand-spanking new.”

People considering driving must have a valid Florida license and be willing to take a TB test, a physical, be fingerprinted and have a background check, and take a driver safety course online and by watching a DVD.

All medical appointments for which the van is used must be in the morning, Silbert said. “We start picking up at 6:15 a.m. and only stop at the stops where we know people will be waiting. That means they need to make their appointments between 8 and 11 a.m.”

For more information, to use the van, volunteer or donate, call 813-642-0302.     

Someone to install a hand-hold to help people into the van, or to repaint the van would also be appreciated. 

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