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By Bethany Wesley on Jan 18, 2014 at 12:23 a.m.

BEMIDJI — Local veterans have a new set of wheels for medical trips to Fargo, N.D..

The Disabled American Veterans North Central Minnesota Chapter No. 7 received a Ford Flex from the DAV Department of Minnesota, which is being used to transport veterans from the Bemidji area to the Fargo Veterans Administration Medical Center.

The Flex replaces a much older van that used to transport veterans to Fargo, but was racking up mileage. That van now will be going to the Wounded Warrior Guide Service, which provides veterans hunting opportunities.

Adjutant Robert Saddoris, the site coordinator for Chapter 7, reported that from January to October 2013, the old van covered 13,000 miles transporting 160 veterans on 47 trips to Fargo.

“This is extremely important,” Saddoris said of receiving the new vehicle. “We don’t charge a vet a thing to ride it, and they don’t have to be disabled to ride it. Any veteran who can be seen at the Fargo VA hospital is eligible to ride.”

The Flex is one of three that were provided to develop the DAV Northwest Transportation System, which now has a dispatcher in Detroit Lakes. Other Ford Flex vehicles are located in Park Rapids and Wheaton and have their own routes to Fargo.

The van, leaving from the National Guard Armory in Bemidji, makes scheduled weekly runs to Fargo — upcoming dates are Jan. 22 and 30 and Feb. 5, 13, 19 and 27 — with stops in Solway, Shevlin, Bagley, Fosston, Mahnomen and Ada along the way.

“This is absolutely vital,” said Scotty Allison, the veterans services officer for Beltrami County and a DAV member.

“It is the veteran’s responsibility to set up their appointment on the days that we run (to Fargo), Saddoris said. “All of the folks in Fargo, they have our schedule, too, so the schedulers should know what days we are coming.”

The program also tries accommodate veterans who scheduled an appointment for another day, assuming a volunteer driver can be found.

But more volunteer drivers are needed. There are now 10 on Saddoris’ list, but two are now in Arizona, one in North Dakota and one in Canada. “We need volunteers bad,” he said.

To volunteer, a person must pass vision and hearing tests, a general physical to ensure they are fit to drive, and also attend training in Fargo.

Noting that more than 70 percent of area veterans are older than 55, Allison said demand for services, including transportation, is only going to increase in coming years.

“The value of this inaugural system that is now set up will become more important, not less, especially if we are not able to establish a veterans home here,” he said.

The Flex is under the control of the Fargo VAMC. Having such a transportation system saves costs, too; previously, veterans would be reimbursements for making their own, private trips to the hospital.

“It’s really a combined service, a combined benefit, for the Fargo VA Medical Center and the Disabled American Veterans,” Allison said.

Allison said there are more than 3,200 veterans in Beltrami County; 20,000 in Beltrami County and the nine other counties that border it; and 31,000 in the 16 counties that compose northwest Minnesota.

“We have a much older population than you would typically find elsewhere in the United States,” he said of area veterans. “This is, in my opinion, the beginning of a much larger network, especially if we do not get all of the resources that we need out here.”

To make an appointment for a ride, call (855) 277-9787. You may have to leave a message but the dispatcher will call you back as soon as possible.

Anyone interested in serving as a volunteer driver should contact Adjutant Robert Saddoris at (218) 243-2663. More drivers are needed.


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