COST OF FREEDOM
This July Fourth, The Times showcases the price veterans have paid for our freedoms. Look for stories in Saturday’s and Sunday’s papers devoted to the physical and mental toll that serving our country has taken.
Those interested in volunteering to drive area veterans to the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur or veterans interested in riding on the van can call Samuel D. Smith, commander of Disabled American Veterans Gainesville-Hall Chapter 17, at 678-761-2330.
The three men slipped out of their vehicles as the passenger van rolled up at daybreak Tuesday at the Big Lots in Gainesville.
Immediately, the van driver, Don Fancher, greeted them with bad news: Interstate 85 was closed at Interstate 285 because of an accident. The trip to the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Decatur might take longer than normal.
The men grumbled some, but conversation quickly turned to other topics, such as a potential new leader at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Before long, the trip was underway as the Disabled American Veterans’ local chapter continues what officials have said has become a much-needed and valuable daily service for many Hall County-area veterans.
“There are so many veterans who cannot drive or they are without transportation and they have medical appointments (in Decatur),” said Samuel D. Smith, commander of DAV Gainesville-Hall Chapter 17.
The van service is just one way to help those who have sacrificed for the country, something particularly observed on this day.
“I definitely believe that freedom isn’t free and I’ve been blessed,” Fancher said.
The DAV chapter supplies the van and drivers, and the VA takes care of insurance, maintenance and fuel, Smith said.
The organization has about a dozen volunteers on a driving rotation and some 60-70 veterans who regularly use the service, he said.
Big Lots on Browns Bridge Road is just one of several stops the DAV has. Veterans also can climb on the van at the Wal-Mart off Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood, Cheeseburger Bobby’s restaurant off Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch and QuikTrip convenience store off Ga. 20 in Buford.
And the chapter is looking at adding a stop in the Beaver Ruin Road area in Gwinnett County.
“Anyone who needs a ride, we’ll arrange it for them,” Smith said.
Anyone who has served in the military and was “separated under any condition other than dishonorable” may qualify for health care benefits, according to the VA.
Trips usually start at 6:30 a.m., with veterans’ appointments stacked during the morning hours and scattered among different practices and clinics. The plan is to leave in the early afternoon, if possible, to get back “at a reasonable hour,” Smith said.
Tuesday’s ride featured veterans with a wide variety of military service: William McNeal, who served in the Army 1950-53, including the Korean War; Danny Kiles, who served 1986-93, including the Persian Gulf War; and Mark Whitmire, who was in the Air Force 1986-2008, including the Kosovo conflict in Eastern Europe.
McNeal, 84, who suffered a stroke 1 1/2 years ago and was scheduled to see an occupational therapist, talked about his transportation needs.
“Once you have a stroke, as a general rule, the VA takes away your driver’s license, as you’re going through the process of rehabilitation,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing right now.”
Of his own war experiences, “I was fortunate to get out of there without getting shot or beat up,” McNeal said.
Kiles, 47, is still feeling the effects of Desert Storm, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“To this day, all I remember is they called ‘Gas!’ and I went running toward a berm, then I woke up in a medical tent,” he said. “Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve just gotten worse. They call it Gulf War Syndrome, where I’m in chronic pain all day.
“And they don’t know really what causes the pain.”
He has trouble standing and sitting for lengthy periods, with pain stretching from his neck to his feet, where he also suffers from neuropathy and plantar fasciitis. On Tuesday, he was visiting a podiatrist for the pain in his feet.
Whitmire, 49, who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars but didn’t see any action, was being treated for depression. He said he wasn’t sure of exact causes, but treatment so far “has been good.”
Fancher, a retiree, said he felt compelled to volunteer after seeing a newspaper article eight years ago about the DAV’s need for drivers.
“I feel like you need to give back, particularly if you’ve been fortunate with whatever in life,” said Fancher, a West Hall resident who served in the Army 1968-69. “I was fortunate I ended up in Japan and not Vietnam, so I feel like I was blessed.”
The driver typically drops off the veterans at the crowded front door, then begins the hunt for a parking space. That used to be a serious chore until the VA began adding parking spaces.
Fancher dropped off McNeal and Kiles, then drove Whitmire to an off-campus practice. He returned to the VA, where he was able to find a spot quickly, slipping the vehicle into a tight space in a parking garage.
The driver usually has plenty of time to kill as the veterans fan out to their respective appointments. Fancher took in some exercise at the Lullwater Preserve, an Emory University nature area that backs up to the VA.
Using a walking stick that he keeps on a chain-link fence at a trail entrance, he hiked through the park, which features open green spaces, a lake, waterfall and swinging bridge.
Then, it was back to the hospital, where there was more time to burn. He bought some snacks at the hospital’s retail store and relaxed while eating in the nearby cafeteria. Navigating the hallways took some skill, as people — especially veterans, some in wheelchairs — were on the move.
The veterans and Fancher agreed on a central meeting spot once appointments were done. Whitmire was the last to finish, having been shuttled from the off-campus practice to the hospital.
As the men made their way to the front entrance, Fancher made the long trip to the van and drove around to pick them up.
The veterans talked some about their doctor visits, which went well, especially for Kiles. He was able to schedule much-needed surgery for his plantar fasciitis.
“That was a good outcome,” he said. “Standing on my feet is killing me.”
The trip home was quick — no delays or stop-and-go traffic — and the group sat mostly in silence.
The men had talked some about their VA experiences during the trip, indicating they had been mostly positive but also acknowledging some of the nationwide crisis surrounding patient wait times.
Kiles reaffirmed some of that at the end of the trip, as he talked about his surgery.
“I don’t know when they’ll schedule me,” he said, flashing a smile but shaking his head. “It could be two to three months.”