Most of the veterans who need a lift to Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center don’t talk about what they did in the military, but they often talk about the far away places they ended up during their service.
Deb Mallion, 61, has worked as a volunteer driver for the past six years. After having served 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, Mallion helps other veterans with a free van ride to the hospital through Disabled American Veterans, a non-profit organization that purchases the vans.
“They never talk about their medical problems,” said Mallion as she drove to pickup a veteran in north Spokane. “Some of the World War II guys talk about where they were. You kind of get an idea what they sacrificed in their life.”
Jeannie Kyle, the Hospital Service Coordinator for DAV, manages the volunteers needed to provide the free rides. Veterans Affairs officials provide DAV office space, computers and printers for the effort. But Kyle works to recruit and schedule the drivers, like Mallion.
And, Kyle said, she needs more of them.
“In some places, like Sandpoint, we cut the service down from three days a week to one because we only have one driver,” she said. “In Colville, we only have one driver. I need someone in Airway Heights. We’ve got a van, but no driver to take care of it.”
Mallion, whose primary job in the Air Force was to make sure other service members got their paychecks, twice was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base and eventually moved back here to retire.
Fridays are her usual day to get veterans to the hospital for doctor visits.
“I travel a lot, so I need a fill-in driver when I miss,” she said. “You can volunteer as much or as little as you want. It’s not like you have to stop your life to volunteer.”
Kyle said the positions are not paid, although the drivers do get a $6 voucher for a meal. It sometimes covers the cost of lunch, she said.
The drivers must pass a physical, which ensures that they can hear and see well enough to drive the veterans. The organization does background checks to make sure they have nothing in their criminal histories that would cause problems.
“We are not in a crisis mode at this point. But in those places where we only have one driver, if they get sick we have to shut the van down,” she said.
On Thursday, Mallion picked up 73-year-old Geoffrey B. White, who served four years of active service in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Vietnam War.
“My wife used to drive me” to the VA, White said. “But she died from cancer last year. We were married for 48 years. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage, but we did well.”
That whole time, White has lived in the same house in north Spokane. He graduated from Shadle Park High School in 1965.
“I was one of the few people who never got seasick, so they gave me twice as much work,” White said of his service in the Coast Guard. “I politely talked to some people about it, but it didn’t do any good. It was quite an experience. But I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Kyle said her employer purchases the vans used to transport the veterans. In Spokane, the VA then fills them with gas and services the vehicles.
Once the vans get to the end of their usefulness, the VA transfers the vans back to DAV. That organization then uses whatever value is left in the van toward the next van purchase, she said.
“I have one driver who goes from Colfax to Lewiston to start his run,” Kyle said. “I always say they are our unsung heroes. They get the satisfaction of knowing they helped our veterans.”
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