Sherri Brown got behind the wheel and Donald Murray climbed in the car after his appointment at the Twin Ports VA clinic. Driving the several blocks to his Superior home, Sherri joked, chatted about a nearby historical building, pointed out a niece who lives in the neighborhood. After Murray entered his home, Sherri shared: “He just lost his wife on Saturday.”
Sherri and her husband, Tom, of Pike Lake, are volunteer drivers for the Disabled Veterans Program transportation program. Their jobs are to drive vets to and from their VA appointments, but it becomes much more than that.
“They treat the people like they’re top of the line, and they are. They’re veterans; that’s what you do,” said Dan Welsand, DAV transportation coordinator for Northeastern Minnesota.
DAV is a nonprofit that supports vets and their families. Volunteers drive veterans who do not use wheelchairs Monday through Thursday in Duluth, Superior, Cloquet, Proctor, Hermantown, Barnum, Moose Lake, Two Harbors and to the Minneapolis VAMC.
“Transportation is the No. 1 barrier between a veteran getting to go to this appointment,” Sherri said. And in 2019, volunteers drove more than 3,600 vets over 143,000 miles.
They drive World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans still, and longer hauls to the Cities are a strain on them as a passenger. “In Duluth, if they come here on the city bus, it’ll take two to three transfers, and take two hours to get here for a 15-minute appointment,” Welsand said.
“They treat people like they're the top of the line, and they are. They're veterans, that's what you do.”
Tom and Sherri said their favorite part of the work is the people. They’re so appreciative, and it’s a really needed service, and the service provides companionship for them.
“There’s a lot of lonely guys out there,” he added.
Tom has been volunteering for more than two years; Sherri started a year-and-a-half ago.
He served in Germany and Vietnam from 1965-68. A disabled vet himself, he does visit the VA clinic, but he hasn’t taken advantage of DAV’s services.
“He has a chauffer,” said Sherri with a smile.
The Browns both participate in other veteran-related volunteer work, at the VFW and with their local DAV chapter, and both retirees, as are many area DAV drivers, Welsand said.
Getting approved as a DAV volunteer is simple. You’re required to watch an informational video, and have your eyes and ears checked at the VA in the Cities. About 80% of drivers are veterans, but you don’t have to be a vet to help out, Welsand said.
Local volunteer shifts run five to eight hours, and drivers headed to the Cities can clock 8-12 hour days. DAV provides the vehicles, and drivers are paid with a lunch voucher to Subway or McDonald’s. “We take care of them the best we can,” Welsand said.
The biggest challenges to the job are the weather, they said. A plus is how satisfying it is to help veterans of all ages.
Welsand has answered some emergency calls, but he’s quick to refer them to 911. As far as health events, a veteran has died in the van of another coordinator, but Welsand hasn’t seen that in his program.
“The ones we transport, they’re ambulatory. Some are coming in just to get their toenails clipped. Some are coming in because they do have a real issue. Some are coming to see their mental health provider to make sure all their benefits stay in line,” he said.
Up next for the program, Welsand hopes to expand with more vehicles and to do more work on the Iron Range.
He has been involved in DAV for five years, and the stories are nonstop.
“We’ve got guys that were struck by lightning, and it’s in one ear and out the other on a radio from a ship," Welsand recalled. "A guy that chased a U-boat in World War II. They thought Hitler was on it.”
He served in the U.S. Navy from 1989-92. His grandfather was a World War II vet. He tries to absorb as much as he can and has made some good friends. He's had some pain when they died. This work impacts your life, and it’s where he learned to be “a kind human being,” he said.
“It helps me up here as a disabled veteran myself. I just need to be around my veteran brothers. … You get a lot of mentors," he said. “We’re veterans helping veterans.”
For more information or to request a ride, call Welsand at 218-204-0693. To volunteer, go to davmn.org/transportation.