Unsung heroes transport South Shore veterans

Published on: June 29, 2017

By Phyllis Hodges

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 110 recently began a drive to replace this 2008 van that transports veterans to medical appointments. From left: Driver Ken Null; Transport Coordinator Stuart Swayze; Chapter Commander Jim Schwartz; and Chapter Adjutant Darrell Katz. Bill Hodges Photo

Neighbors Helping Neighbors.”  Yes, this area is especially blessed with volunteers and financial donors who support various factions of our community. All of us who live here can be proud of that.

One of those groups includes the veterans who have sacrificed to keep us free. Yes, we pay proper tribute to them on patriotic holidays, but some do more than that. Those who keep the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) transport service alive are certainly among those unsung heroes. They are small in numbers but gigantic in dedication.

If you are not an early riser, you won’t see the six-seat DAV van leaving the S.R. 674 fire station each weekday morning around 6:30 a.m. Veterans with medical appointments at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa or one of its satellite clinics can “catch” the van at one of five stops: N. Pebble Beach Boulevard (just north of the Sun City Center Library), Sun Towers, Kings Point, Ruskin Post Office and Gibsonton Walmart.

Not widely known is the fact that the service is actually a Veterans Administration program, sponsored and managed locally by DAV Chapter 110. This group just completed its tenth year of sponsoring the program.  Darrell Katz, adjutant for DAV Chapter 110, credits Stuart and Kathy Swayze for survival of the local service. “Last year we were on the verge of suspending the program due to the lack of dispatchers and drivers.  Stu and Kathy saw our call for volunteers and quickly set about building a team to save the program. They both have extensive managerial experience, which they use daily to coordinate the team’s activity. Since this is a government program, there are mounds of paperwork to report riders, mileage, time, gas usage and vehicle maintenance, etc.  The Swayzes handle all that; we are truly indebted to them,” he said.

“The best medical care in the world doesn’t mean much if you can’t get yourself to it,” said Stu Swayze.  “This program is deceptively simple in terms of actual services. The VA wants us to provide easily accessible service, and we strive to make it happen. Since becoming involved, I’ve been impressed by the unique collaboration involving the VA, the DAV at the state and chapter levels, the community and this small group of dedicated, hardworking volunteers.”

The only requirements for ridership are that the veteran is a patient at Haley, is ambulatory (no wheelchairs) and has called 813-642-0302 to reserve a seat. They request at least three days notice, but will do all they can to accommodate last-minute requests. Average ridership is about 65 a month.  There is no residency requirement, but most riders live in South Hillsborough County.

This DAV service is the only community-based transport service in the VA system. “We have always received amazing community financial support to cover expenses not paid by the VA,” said Jim Schwartz, chapter commander. “Our 2008 Ford Econoline six-seat van, initially donated by the Interfaith Council, has served us well. Unfortunately, it now requires too much maintenance and needs to be replaced.”

The group recently began a low-key fund drive for a new van and is encouraged by contributions from several SCC organizations and clubs. The DAV’s nonprofit status also enables them to accept individual tax-deductible donations. Anyone interested in contributing should call 813-331-3871. This is also the number to call if interested in volunteering. (The dispatchers work from their homes in two-week stints; drivers are scheduled as needed.)

The local DAV chapter operates from an office at 1002 Cherry Hills Drive where they help veterans with VA issues such as applying for VA benefits, requesting re-evaluations of current status and applying for surviving spousal benefits, etc.  The SCC Community Association began providing the space at no charge in 2015. Veterans/spouses do not have to be a DAV chapter member to request help. Nor do they have to be residents of the Greater Sun City Center Area. For information or to schedule appointments with the adjutant, call 813-642-2047.