Local veterans took advantage of a new service this morning - free transportation to medical care.
Four veterans boarded the van, driven by volunteer James Stewart, which left Havre just before 7:30 a.m. bound for the Fort Harrison medical center near Helena.
Today was the first time veteran Percy Boettger used the van to go to Fort Harrison. He's used the service, which began in June, to travel to a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Great Falls.
Before the service began, he would drive down to the clinics.
He said he's glad the service is here, although "We've got to get up early in the morning."
The comradeship of riding with other veterans is also good, he said.
"They always get to BSing," he added.
The Montana Disabled American Veterans and the Hill County Council on Aging received the van at the end of May to transport veterans to the outpatient clinic in Great Falls and the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, said Ken Hannah, Havre coordinator for the transportation service.
The state Disabled American Veterans and the Hill County Council on Aging teamed up last fall to apply to the national Disabled American Veterans organization for the van, Hannah said.
Evelyn Havskjold, director of the North Central Senior Citizens Center, said several people approached her about the need for transportation to the veterans' medical facilities. A collaboration of the council, the DAV, the Hill County Commission and others in the area led to the van coming to Havre, she said.
"It all kind of fell in place," she added.
Ronald Banks, the DAV hospital service coordinator at Fort Harrison, said Montana received 10 new vans in May, raising the state's total to 27. There are close to 1,000 DAV vans operating in the country, he said.
The Disabled American Veterans Transportation Program started distributing the vans in 1987. The Montana Disabled American Veterans received its first vans that same year, Hannah said.
The vans averaged 750,000 total miles a year in Montana over the last three years, Banks said.
Ford Motor Co. makes the vans, which it sells to DAV at cost. The local share for the vans is about $8,000, while the national organization pays the rest, Hannah said.
Havskjold said the Hill County Council on Aging used money from a trust fund it has, consisting of donations and memorial contributions, for its share of the local match. Once the application was in for the van, people started making donations earmarked for it, she added.
The Council on Aging covered most of the $8,000 local match, and the Montana DAV provided the balance, she said.
Banks said the total cost for a van is about $23,000. Fort Motor Co. also has donated 75 vans to the DAV and other organizations in communities that can't afford the match, he added.
The van makes trips to the Great Falls clinic on the first and third Mondays and Wednesdays of each month, and to Fort Harrison on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. The vans leave at 7:30 a.m., generally returning about 3:30 p.m. from Great Falls and about 7 p.m. from Fort Harrison. The return time depends on when the veterans' appointments are completed, Hannah said.
The van usually transports two to four veterans a trip, he said. The van holds up to six, including the driver.
"It'll pick up as the weather gets bad and the word gets out," he added.
Veterans on the route to Great Falls can call to schedule being picked up on the way, he said.
The trip is free, but the veteran must have an appointment at a clinic, and must call the North Central Senior Citizens Center to confirm that he or she will use the van, Hannah said.
Gwen Goar, who drives the senior van for the senior center, coordinates the use of the DAV van.
"We're trying to get schedules out to people so they know in advance when to set their appointments," she said. "It's been, so far, working pretty good. People have been able to line up appointments when they need them."
Hannah and several others have volunteered to drive the van. Goar said she and other senior center staffers could fill in as drivers if necessary.
The service is always looking for volunteers. Banks said volunteers must meet several requirements to be able to drive for the DAV transportation service.