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Helping veterans get better medical access

According to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, there are currently a little over 33,000 military veterans living in northwestern Minnesota.

Of those, more than 13,600 are receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration Medical Centers in Fargo and St. Cloud -- yet in many rural areas, reliable transportation to and from the VAMC is often limited, if available at all.

Ready accessibility to necessary medical services is limited by the distance veterans need to travel to reach them.

But thanks to a $105,000 grant from the V4V (Veterans for Veterans) Trust Foundation and funding from Disabled American Veterans-Minnesota, the transportation barriers faced by veterans needing medical services in 15 counties of northwest Minnesota -- including Becker, Mahnomen, Hubbard and Otter Tail -- will be considerably reduced.

"We are extremely excited about this transportation initiative," said Becker County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) Lauri Brooke. "This has never been done before."

The grant will be used to purchase three handicap accessible passenger vans that will then be donated to the VAMCs in Fargo and St. Cloud, which will pay for insurance, gas and maintenance expenses on the vehicles.

"The vans will be positioned in Thief River Falls, Wheaton and Walker," Brooke said.

Transportation routes will be established for each of the vans to travel to and from the VAMCs.

The routes will be staffed by volunteer drivers, who will receive a stipend for their services. Coordination of routes and drivers will be maintained by local CVSOs; Brooke said the dispatching aspect of the program is still being worked out.

"We're still trying to figure out how to do the dispatching, find drivers -- the true nitty gritty of it," Brooke said. "It's going to happen. The vans will be delivered, and now we are just working on making the logistics happen and getting the word out there (that the service will be available)."

The vans are scheduled to be delivered in early May.

"This $105,000 grant will pay for almost all of the cost, except $26,000 that has to be raised by the communities using the vans," Brooke said.

The $26,000 will be used to pay for residual costs not covered by the grant, and will be a one-time expense to the counties involved.

"There is no concerted effort in northwest Minnesota right now to offer this type of program, so we're really excited by this initiative," she said, noting that it has been "a real partnership" between the northwest Minnesota CVSO's, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, DAV-Minnesota and V4V Foundation.

Brooke added that the transportation project has been about six years in the making.

"It's finally coming together," she added. "We're very excited, because this is a service that is much needed."

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454