Dick Lang: Veterans Driving Veterans

For over 25 years the Disabled American Veterans program has been providing Clatsop County veterans transportation to medical appointments. On 250 days each year, a van leaves from the parking lot at 7:00 a.m. sharp with locals who have served our nation and who need assistance reaching their appointments in the greater Portland Metro area.

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Dick Lang retired from the Coast Guard in 1994 and became a volunteer for the Astoria VA Van. “A couple of years ago my personal disabilities became too severe and I am no longer qualified to drive veterans. This allowed me more time to recruit and volunteer in other areas,” Lang said. Photo credit: Wendi Agalzoff.

“Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is a non-profit organization that raises funds to supplement the van donations from the Ford Corporation,” explains Dick Lang, volunteer coordinator for the Astoria-based van. “DAV also helps veterans receive their benefits, including housing assistance, medical, compensation, pension and transportation.”

Lang retired from the Coast Guard in 1994 and visited the local County Veteran Service Officer to apply for VA benefits for service-connected disabilities. While there, Lang noticed volunteers coordinating the Astoria van and signed up as a life member. “I applied to be a van driver and went through the extensive process of training, medical examination and background checks. I initially drove every other Tuesday. Some drivers drove once per week, others once a month and a couple filled in as needed. I volunteered to take over scheduling drivers and was able to institute a longer range schedule that allows drivers more flexibility in their personal commitments.”

Nine other vans from Oregon and Southwest Washington transport veterans into Portland 250 days a year (Monday through Friday, excluding Federal holidays). The Portland VA Medical Center Transportation Office fields calls from veterans, schedules the appropriate van and advises volunteer drivers. The Transportation Office also tracks the mileage on each van to enable replacement for vans over 200,000 miles. In December of 2016, Astoria’s van with over 250,000 miles was replaced with a new Ford passenger van with seating for 11 passengers.

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The new van which allows safer boarding for disabled veterans in addition to seating for 11 passengers was allocated to Astoria in December 2016. Photo courtesy: Dick Lang

In addition to coordinating drivers, Lang was appointed to a committee to study veteran transportation issues within Oregon and Washington. Through his efforts and partnership with the Sunset Empire Transportation District (SETD), the local VA Office was able to institute additional programs for veterans with grant funding acquired by SETD. New programs included local transportation for veterans who were unable to get to the Astoria Van, who struggled to get to the local VA clinic at Camp Rilea, and those who needed assistance to get to their appointments with the County Veteran Service Officer. In addition, a second program initiated a series of outreach meetings all over the county to increase awareness about local veteran transportation availability and other benefits.

“Our biggest issue is finding and retaining volunteers,” says Lang, who is no longer qualified to drive veterans due to severe personal disabilities. “We need drivers during the work day, meaning people without other daytime commitments. Our drivers tend to be older, thus eventually wear out like me, and we require replacements. Right now I need four drivers once a month or one driver once a week just to fill all the slots. I currently have four days a month when Portland has to tell veterans to reschedule their appointments or find other transportation.” Lang shares that rescheduling appointments for veterans can take months.

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The Astoria DAV van needs volunteers. The DAV is a non-profit organization providing support for veterans of all generations and their families, helping more than 1 million veterans each year. Photo courtesy: Jerry Adelman

Volunteer drivers are allocated a Federal Identification card, DAV volunteer status and an annual or biennial medical examination. “Drivers’ benefits include a scenic drive, very interesting stories from veterans and a delicious breakfast and lunch courtesy of the VA Volunteer office at the hospital canteen. I like the veggie omelet and foot-long tuna sub,” says Lang.

For veterans who need a van ride into the Portland Area for a VA medical appointment, call 800-949-1004, extension 57804, or 503-721-7804. The office asks for four working days’ notice. Veterans needing a local ride to the van can reserve additional transportation (including rides to County Veterans Services and Camp Rilea VA Clinic) when they make their van reservation.

For those interested in being a volunteer van driver or for more information, contact Dick Lang at dicklang@charter.net or call 503-298-8757.

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