COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Just before dawn on a chilly Wednesday morning, Gary Powell climbs into a large white passenger van and turns on the ignition.
As the engine warms up, the Columbia Missourian (http://bit.ly/1CvmmOF ) reports he affixes a GPS device to the windshield. It sits to the left of the steering wheel, just above the dashboard. He unwinds a cord and plugs the navigation system into the cigarette lighter.
"Thank goodness for GPS," Powell said. "We go some crazy places."
He has a 153-mile drive ahead of him, so he sets off from the Truman Veterans' Hospital parking lot at 5:30 a.m. Powell's journey that day would take him to Macon, Huntsville and Centralia.
Powell, 67, served as a communications officer in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1971 and is now a volunteer driver for the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network. At least once a week, he wakes up before dawn to drive military veterans to their appointments at the hospital. He has volunteered for the last five years, since retiring as a driver for a soda distributor.
In the last year, Powell has shuttled a growing number of veterans to their appointments. On that Wednesday, he drove seven, an even busier day than usual.
"We haul more than we used to," he said. "I don't remember hauling people like we do."
The number of veterans using the hospital has steadily increased over the last several years with 36,264 veterans in 2014, compared to 35,911 in 2013 and 35,351 in 2012. Sixteen percent of the appointments in 2014 used the transportation network, according to data from the hospital.
Powell said some volunteers drive three times a week to keep up with the growth. "That's asking a lot," he said.
Last year, the Disabled American Veterans Missouri department gave 14,728 rides, said Michael Elmore, the department adjutant. Columbia drivers provided 36 percent of those rides, according to data obtained from the veterans' hospital.
To accommodate the growth, Elmore said he would consider getting more vans for the Columbia hospital, but there must be volunteers to drive them.
"That's the biggest thing, finding volunteers," Elmore said. "All those miles were all volunteer miles ... Without volunteers; those 14,000 veterans might not have gotten to their appointments."
Powell said he would like to see twice the number of drivers.
"You have to understand that we are needed, but if they pressure us to drive too much, it will burn people out," he said. "If you are retired, you really don't want to get up and start your day at 5:30 in the morning."
But Powell said he doesn't mind the miles and early start because at the end of day, he is "helping people that need help."
"Every time we travel, there's at least one guy who makes you appreciate helping veterans," Powell said. "They say they don't know what they do without the DAV... We could be in their place later on."
Any veteran with an appointment qualifies for a ride, Elmore said, although veterans must be able to get into the van on their own. Powell said the veterans he drives have various disabilities.
"You see people with breathing problems (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), injuries that resulted in loss of limbs, heart surgeries and eye problems," he said. "Some men have lost their license because of alcoholism."
The transportation network is just one service of the DAV, a national organization chartered by Congress to assist disabled military veterans. The organization helps veterans apply for VA benefits and advocates for them at different levels of government.
While the Cold Spring, Kentucky-based nonprofit has been around since 1920, it only began giving rides in 1987, according to its website. That was after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pared its transportation services, Elmore said.
"DAV picked up the ball and ran with it," he said. "We knew there were veterans that could not get to their appointments."
The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to have a transportation service available for veterans in every VA hospital by 2015, according to its website. The VA launched its own program, Veterans Transportation Service, in 2010. Other nonprofits, such as United We Ride, also help veterans access medical services.
Stephen Gaither, public affairs officer for the hospital, said that once the relationship between the DAV and VA medical centers was established in 1987, "adding this valuable service was relatively easy to accomplish" in Columbia.
Truman Veterans' Hospital serves 45 counties, the largest service area among the VA medical centers in Missouri.
"Many veterans would have a very difficult time accessing VA health care services without the means to travel to and from VA facilities," Gaither said.
The hospital operates eight community outpatient clinics so veterans don't have to drive to Columbia for every appointment.
These clinics provide primary care and basic mental health services, Gaither said. The Jefferson City and Fort Leonard Wood clinics also provide audiology services.
However, some treatment options are only available in Columbia, including inpatient care for medicine, surgery and mental health, Gaither said. Outpatient care ranges from primary care and rehabilitation to a variety of medical specialty and surgical sub-specialty services.
Volunteers fuel the DAV transportation network. To participate, the person must have a valid driver's license and complete training at the veterans' hospital. Powell helps with the training, which is pretty straightforward: Drivers read a manual and watch a video.
Powell learned about the network at the veterans' hospital, where he went for his own medical appointments. After retiring, he thought it would be a good place to volunteer. Driving was one of nine options Powell could choose from when he decided to volunteer, along with roughly 800 other people who give their time to the hospital.
Volunteer drivers receive a free lunch and access to a lounge in the hospital where they can rest. They are typically older and retired, since those are the people with the most availability.
"They can sleep late the next day," he said.
When he isn't driving, Powell keeps busy with his six grandchildren and meeting friends for coffee. He also finds time to read the paper. He said his wife, Mary, wishes he had more time to clean.
He commits to driving about once a week, and a Wednesday in the middle of this year's pre-Thanksgiving cold snap found him arriving in Macon in his big white van bearing the green DAV symbol sometime around 6:30 a.m.
The sun was just barely up as he jumped out to help his passengers. Both had walkers that needed to be stored in the back. He has driven the first man before, but the second, Air Force veteran Donald Deshazer, is new to Powell's van.
"I have great respect for drivers," Deshazer said, after he was settled in the van. "On a limited income, I can't afford to go... I'm very thankful."
Powell drives many of the same veterans, creating a sense of familiarity in his car. As the day's chauffeur, he makes introductions each time he picks up a new passenger.
Powell doesn't know much about the veterans he picks up — just name, address and phone number. So he strikes up conversations as he drives.
"You're in a van closed in for two hours, so you talk about what service they were in, what they've done in their lifetime, whether they liked the hospital or not," he said.
He doesn't pry, keeping the conversation light. In general, drivers are told not to talk about anything that may upset the veterans.
"I find it interesting to talk to them," he said. "I don't ask them any personal questions and stay away from medical stuff. It makes it more interesting if you talk to them."
Powell said every day is different, and he learns something new with each drive.
"Veterans are interesting, from the places they have been to the things they have done," he said.
When he drives alone, Powell passes the time by listening to audio books. He prefers mystery novels. When veterans are in the car, it's conversation or the radio.
Powell's day ends after he takes his passengers back home. On his way back to the veterans' hospital, he stops to fill up the tank, wash the windshield and clean the van.
At the hospital, he gets out of the big white van, gets into his smaller car and heads home to south Columbia. He plans to relax, but the rest won't last long. He needs to rake the leaves the next day.
It's obvious that Powell derives satisfaction and pride from his volunteer work and his easy conversations with the men he drives.
"We are not counselors," he said. "But you can tell them to hang in there."
Information from: Columbia Missourian/Columbia, Missouri, www.columbiamissourian.com/.
Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Columbia Missourian.