Call To Action

Bob Barber would rather make someone laugh with funny anecdotes of his cross country trips, with his wife of 53 years, than talk about the wars and wounds that number him with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

But Barber, who is the director of transportation for the DAV in Washington and gave 23 years to the U.S. Navy, is no stranger to the worries and concerns of American veterans. Having fought and flown in the Korean and Vietnam wars, Barber knows what the face of war looks like, and the faces of those who have fought these wars beside him — some of whom never returned the same from war, and others who never returned at all.

Now Barber spends much of his time arranging transportation, to and from hospitals, for these men and women who have sacrificed so dearly for their country.

The DAV in Oak Harbor is in need of volunteer drivers to assist in taking veterans to the Seattle’s Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) Puget Sound Health Care facility for medical care and assistance.

“Last year, we took 2,040 veterans,” Barber said. “We ran five days a week, 52 weeks a year.”

This year, Barber said he is short on drivers. He currently has seven drivers, but he said if something comes up for one of them, it makes the driver rotation quite tight.

“If their wife is sick or something, and they can’t make it — you know — it’s hard on the other guys.”

Barber said ideally, he would like about 20 drivers to put on a rotation.

Norm Bomkamp of Oak Harbor, a veteran marine and currently a driver for the DAV, said if Barber had 20 drivers, he would have enough so that each driver would only have to drive once a month, which wouldn’t inconvenience or task anyone too much.

Barber said his DAV chapter has somewhere between 10,000 to 11,000 veterans, but that between 15,000 to 17,000 veterans live on the Island. With the average veteran age at about mid-fifties, the need for medical attention will rise within the next few years and more veterans will need to access the van rides down to the VA hospital.

“We need drivers bad,” Barber said.

Bomkamp said driving other vets to and from Seattle is rewarding for him because he feels he is giving back and doing what he can for them, for what services they gave their country. He knows he will be in their seats, on the drives down to the VA hospital, someday, and hopes someone will fill in and drive for him when he needs it.

A typical drive to Seattle starts at 6:30 a.m. from the Oak Harbor Safeway parking lot. The van picks veterans up in Anacortes, The Farmhouse Inn, sometimes Burlington, Smokey Point, Marysville and Everett. The driver drops the vets off at the hospital, gets a free meal ticket, and then picks everyone up again. On a good day, the van is back in Oak Harbor by about 3 or 4 p.m. It can, however, end up as a 10 to 15 hour day, depending on traffic, appointments, pick-ups and drop-offs, the hospital and weather. Barber said the drive is not without benefits, though.

“The one thing is, you drive down there and see those veterans in the hospital, and you might feel bad going down there, but when you see those vets, you — you feel like a million,” Barber said. “Some of them are in bad shape. Some of them are real serious.”

To prepare new drivers to make the route alone, a seasoned driver takes them out on the route two times. They introduce them to the stops, the veterans and the hospital personnel, and get them a driver identification card.

Interested drivers must have good driving records, be older than 25 and insurable. Volunteers don’t need to be veterans or affiliated with any military organizations. Drivers are volunteers, fulfilling the needs of a large community demographic.

“Nineteen- and 20-years-old are the youngest vets, and some guys are up in their 90s,” Barber said. “I would say the average age is probably 55-years-old, and I have seen a number of disabled women veterans — some from Iraq.”

David Michel, the commander of DAV Whidbey Island Chapter No. 47, said the DAV’s goal is to “focus on men and women who came home sick and injured from war and armed conflict.”

He said every freedom-loving person should care about those individuals who have paid the highest prices for the freedoms Americans enjoy. Many gave their lives, health, limbs, emotions, sight, mobility, dreams, personal well-being and much more.

In a sense, they gave up their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to secure it for others.

“If anyone could get a day or two off a month. There is no financial award, but you really appreciate it,” Barber said. “Just one or two days a month ... We could use the help.”

Bomkamp said vets appreciate this service. He said it makes it easier on them and their families. The vans use the carpool lane, make it to Seattle in good time, and are back at an early hour. He said it is a great service the DAV does in driving veterans to access their medical care, and as a driver, he sees the need for it and feels the gratification from the other veterans for what he does.

Barber agreed and said he hopes people act on what they memorialize on Veterans Day each year. He hopes Americans truly take care of their veterans and give them the day to day honor they deserve, not simply a day off of work once a year.

For people on Whidbey Island, volunteering as a driver, even once a month, would act as a memorial, not a statue or plaque for those who are gone, but as a practical application for the living, and like all memorials, would stand for personal sacrifice, the sacrifice of a loved one or the sacrifice of those currently serving to protect the same America these veterans fought to keep and protect in past years.

“You feel like your accomplishing something,” Barber said, referring to fulfilling the needs of local vets. “Something that helps.”

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