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Veterans van drivers quit over change in pickup locations

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MASSENA — A van that transports north country veterans to the VA Medical Center in Syracuse has worked well in the past with its pickup locations, according to Disabled American Veterans officials who coordinate the trip.

But now it’s losing drivers because of a request from VA officials to pick up veterans at spots other than the designated pickup locations, and it could use more help in transporting the veterans to Syracuse.

“The basic thing is, we’re providing a service to veterans and we will continue to provide it. But we would sure like some more help,” said Warren K. Murray, past commander of DAV Chapter 171.

The van takes veterans to Syracuse early Tuesdays and Thursdays. It leaves at 4:30 a.m. from the Massena Fire Station.

“The Fire Department accommodates us by letting us park our van in their lot. It works out very well,” Mr. Murray said.

It stops at the American Legion in Norfolk, the Sunoco station in Norwood, McDonald’s in Potsdam and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Canton. A van from Ogdensburg meets it at the Canton VFW. And if there are veterans on the route, the drivers will stop to pick them up along way.

The drivers wait for the veterans to finish their appointments in Syracuse and then bring them home. That means if someone can’t see a pulmonary specialist until after 1 p.m., the van will be late in arriving home.

“We leave in the dark and come back in the dark,” said Gregory C. Fregoe, who has been driving veterans to Syracuse for 11 years.

But now, local DAV officials said, the drivers who remain are being asked to pick up veterans at their homes as they do in Syracuse, and that’s just not possible because of the north country’s size.

“They want us to pick them up at their homes. We cannot provide that service. We need more drivers. Why they’re starting this up is beyond me,” Mr. Murray said.

“The gentleman in Syracuse is the only paid DAV position. All of our drivers work for free,” he said.

“It’s always worked good,” Mr. Fregoe said. “I still drive. I was going to follow suit and quit like everyone else.”

He said under the current system, drivers have a list of veterans who need the ride to Syracuse and they call them the day before to make sure they are still going. Then the veterans meet the driver and the 15-passenger van at the designated locations and they hit the road.

“There are World War II and Korean War veterans who go down and it gets tougher on them,” Mr. Fregoe said.

However, DAV Chapter 171 Commander Edward T. Gebeault said regulations require the veterans to enter and exit the van without assistance to make the trip. That means wheelchair-using veterans aren’t able to use the service.

“We’re not allowed to touch them. They have to be able to get in there,” he said.

If a driver is older, another person may accompany him, according to Mr. Gebeault.

“Some of them are 70. Syracuse is a big drive for some of them,” he said.

The lack of drivers hits home even harder in the winter because some of them are snowbirds who leave the area.

“Half of us go to Florida in the wintertime,” Mr. Gebeault said.

It’s not just Massena that’s looking for people to transport the veterans, Mr. Murray said.

“Ogdensburg needs drivers. Potsdam needs drivers,” he said.

Those who would like to drive in Massena may call John Alexander at 769-3028. He will schedule a required physical examination.

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