By Brad Mosher
Rick Nelson spends at least one day a week on the road with a well-planned itinerary.
He knows he is going to Portland.
Or to Hillsboro.
Or maybe both.
He just doesn’t know how many people he will be traveling with until almost the last minute.
He is a volunteer driver for the DAV van which takes Tillamook County veterans to medical appointments in Hillsboro or Portland. When Nelson has a shift, he gets a call that morning from the dispatchers letting him know how many people will be making the ride him.
Sometimes, it is just one rider.
One time, he recalled with a chuckle, he had nine riders filling up the van completely. “That is rare. It has only happened once to me,” the retired electrician said. “It can vary. Last week, it was two or three. Most of the time, there is three or four.”
He admits that the numbers have been kind of small lately, but he is hoping that more veterans will take advantage of the free transportation service into the city.
The number of World War II veterans has dropped, along with Korean veterans, Nelson said. “There are still a lot of Viet Nam veterans needing medical attention.
But he thinks that as the number of Iraq era veterans increase, the numbers will rise again for the service.
Sometimes, he is lucky and he isn’t driving into the sun both ways.
The van normally leaves around 7:30 in the mornings and drives the Highway 6 toward the nearest veterans facilities serving people in most areas of Tillamook County. “By about 8:30 a.m. I am in North Plains and in Hillsboro just before 9 a.m.”
On a beautiful sunny morning, Nelson admitted he has to be extra careful and observant when he is driving east because of the bright sun and the dark shadows crossing the route. “I’d say 50 percent of the time it is probably overcast, but this morning it was really bright. You’d hit the sunlight…. then the shadows. You just have to be really careful and watch what is alongside the road. You have to be diligent. It is safety first.
“Sometimes in the morning, there won’t be a soul behind me. It is just a matter of what time I leave, I guess,” he added.
When the riders return often can depend on how quickly the veterans can finish their appointments, Nelson explained. On some lucky days, all the riders can finish up the appointments before their scheduled times and the van can return to Tillamook County early. “That is a plus. The latest I have ever gotten back has been about 5:30 p.m.”
Nelson said he originally signed up to be a patient visitor. “It has been about four years,” he said.
“I kind of fell into being a driver. I was having breakfast over at the Muddy Waters one time when they mentioned the fact they were looking for drivers. I had already been signed up as a patient visitor.
“That is something I really like to do since I moved over here in 2010. But being a veteran, I feel it is the best way that I can give back to my country and my community,” he said.
According to Nelson, he is one of a group of six drivers who are making the trips to Hillsboro and Portland.
“But, they are always looking for guys to sign up and help out,” he said.
Nelson said he’s been happy doing the driving. “It gets me out of the house. I get to meet other veterans. I enjoy driving, but you have got to really watch out and be very careful.
“Highway 6 can be so dangerous. I stay within the speed limit and obey the traffic laws,” he said, noting that sometimes even that can be unusual for the traffic on the highway.
“I know the passenger’s safety comes first – above anything else.”
Nelson admits he is not one of the senior drivers in terms of time on the road. “I think I have got maybe one more good year in me and after that, I think I am going to hang it up.”
Even being vigilant doesn’t make the drivers and the van immune from the actions of others on the road, Nelson said. “One nice afternoon, just like this, a woman crossed over in front of me and POW.
“We were T-boned… and it took out our brand-new van. It had like 2,000 miles on it. She just smashed right into it and totaled out both cars. Luckily that is the only accident I have been in,” he said.
According to Bill Hatton, Tillamook County Veterans Service Officer, there is a small cadre of Tillamook County residents that donate their time and talents in order to ensure our local veterans have transportation to their VA health care appointments. He praised the efforts of the volunteer drivers in the program – Rod Gum, Mel Robinson, Keith Johanson, Nelson, Joe Erwert, Sue Walker, and George McKibbin. “Without these volunteers, some veterans would not have the quality care they currently receive,” Hatton said.
“Although the Choice Program has helped many veterans obtain local health care, some continue to use Portland and Hillsboro VA health care because the specialty care provided by the VA medical center is not readily available in Tillamook County.”
The van departs from the Tillamook County Transportation District parking lot, located at 3600 Third Street in Tillamook, every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. For the veterans hoping for some transportation assistance, the DAV has a toll free number (1-800-949-1004 extension: 57804).