Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Navy veteran John Penley has been walking across the street from his apartment near East Twain Avenue in central Las Vegas to a nearby laundromat to catch a van that takes him and other veterans to their doctor appointments.
But recently those transportation services seem to be stretched thin, the 69-year-old Penley noticed.
Transportation services catering to the veteran population in Las Vegas are working to meet increased demand for services as more veterans are moving to Las Vegas.
Many veterans are like Penley, who about a year ago had a stroke and heart attack, and combined with spinal problems, has a limited ability to get around. He doesn’t have a car and can’t afford a taxi or ride-sharing service.
“Unfortunately I’ve deteriorated here a lot,” Penley said. “I mostly order from Amazon or walk to the 7-Eleven. I don’t think I can make it to the grocery store anymore.”
Penley uses the Las Vegas Veterans Transportation Service, which is operated by the Veterans Affairs Southern Nevada Healthcare System. It transports about 750 veterans each month for free to and from outpatient appointments at VA medical centers, said John Archiquette, public affairs specialist for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.
“They’re really great people,” Penley said. “All the drivers are as nice as can be.”
The service instructs veterans to schedule transportation two weeks in advance with an appointment date and time, but Penley said now he must schedule his transportation about a month in advance.
When a new doctor’s office scheduled an appointment a few months ago for him with only two weeks’ notice, the Veterans Transportation Service was unable to pick him up, and he had to reschedule the appointment, as he could not afford a taxi and was scared to take a bus due to COVID-19.
And then there was the one day when using another service that he was left stranded at a doctor’s office for nearly three hours.
“That could be life-threatening for somebody to have to wait another month,” he said. “It’s important.”
About 211,000 veterans live in Nevada, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and represents about 9% of adults in the state.
Archiquette said Las Vegas’ veteran population has grown over the past several years, and with that the demand for transportation services has increased as well. Veterans Transportation Service, which currently has six full-time drivers and 13 volunteers, is working on creating more full-time driver positions to accommodate the demand, Archiquette said.
During the pandemic, Archiquette said, they never shut down its transportation services, and demand has remained consistent since March 2020.
“Even when we first started it up,” said VA Project Manager Dan Davis, who started the Veterans Transportation Service program in 2017, “we had quite a few drivers, but the response was pretty overwhelming. … I think we were immediately booked out three months (in advance).”
The Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network System for Southern Nevada is an organization made up of volunteer drivers offering veterans who otherwise have no means of transportation to Veterans Affairs medical appointments. Veterans Affairs Southern Nevada Healthcare System also has a shuttle service that operates between the Medical Center in North Las Vegas and several of the VA primary care clinics, Archiquette said.
Several other community and nonprofit companies also offer transportation for veterans, including Helping Hands and Medic Coach, Archiquette said. Regional Transportation Commission also offers programs for senior citizens and disabled veterans, with reduced fares for eligible veterans.
Denise Davis, the executive director of Veterans Transition Resource Center, said her nonprofit organization provides financial help for veterans who need transportation. They give out prepaid Uber cards or bus passes, she said. Especially in less populated parts of the state, such as Northern Nevada, getting to appointments can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half, and a lot of veterans cannot afford it.
Davis, who now works at the VA in Reno, said the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network System has had trouble keeping volunteer drivers, whereas the Veterans Transportation Service has full-time drivers with a government salary. The funding for the transportation center is not separate from the Medical Administrative Service, Davis said, so it could be hard for the organization to pick allocating funds for a new driver over a nurse.
“Personally I think it’s a good program,” Davis said. “But you’re talking politics at this point to fund something like that.”
Penley hopes that more resources are brought to the veterans transportation services and the drivers, who he said were the “unsung heroes” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They risk their personal safety to take us and bring us home,” he said. “I applaud them for doing that during the pandemic.”