03/06/08 — Volunteer group tries to find rides for county's heroes in need of care

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Volunteer group tries to find rides for county's heroes in need of care

By Renee Carey
Published in News on March 6, 2008 1:45 PM

It is only 6 in the morning, but William Johnson has been awake for a while now.

He is wearing a uniform, only not the Air Force camouflage he grew accustomed to donning during his tour in Vietnam.

The mission has changed, the 74-year-old said.

But Johnson's new role still sees him surrounded by comrades and friends.

Just on an interstate, not in the jungle.

And his commitment to them will not waver, he says.

Not while there are still battles left for them to face.

So he shows up early at a house on Patrick Street at least once a week to drive some of Wayne County's disabled veterans to state Veterans Administration hospitals for treatment.

Just another serviceman keeping his oath, he says.

"I can say God has blessed me through my military service in Vietnam and all that," Johnson said. "Now it's time for me to give back."

Connie Turnage could tell you something about long drives from Goldsboro to Fayetteville, Durham and Greenville.

Before she took over the transportation program at the local Disabled American Veterans' post, she kept busy driving her own hero -- her husband -- in for treatment.

"You just have to be dedicated. You have to be patient," she said. "And you have to be willing to wait at the hospital. Sometimes, the doctors will take a patient and just won't turn him loose. They just want to run him through the mill, and he probably needs it, too."

She never minds -- not even on the rare 12-hour trips.

In fact, volunteering her time as a DAV driver is an "honor" every time.

"I just love talking to the veterans and hearing their stories," Miss Turnage said. "They tell you all about the battles and the injuries and all. Hearing what they did in the war, they just get me every time I drive."

Miss Turnage hopes the idea of volunteer driving resonates with others in the community, too.

After all, her DAV post only has five drivers -- herself and Johnson included.

"The more volunteers we have the less they have to drive," Miss Turnage said. "I have got some right now driving too much."

But those like Johnson never complain about the long hours -- or the fact that no paycheck comes with this job.

"It's more than just a ride," he said. "I've had several moments when I was helping a veteran and, you know, some of them are very weak. You pull up there to the hospital door and say, 'Stay right here now. I'm going to come get you.' Then one says, 'I'm so glad you're here for me.' There it is, right there."

And Miss Turnage knows from experience just how hard it can for aging veterans to get treatment.

"It's hard to get seen and they need those appointments," she said. "If they miss one it could be two, three months before they get another one. So I try my best."

Those who wish to volunteer their time as a driver for the DAV are asked to stop by the post's facility off Patrick Street anytime Tuesday through Thursday.

If Miss Turnage is not there herself to take the application, someone with that authority would be, she said.

Law prohibits diabetics from driving the van but "almost anyone else" can drive.

"All they need is a good driver's license and to be in halfway good health," Miss Turnage said.

But more importantly, they need to be committed their veterans, Johnson said -- no matter what.

"I had this female veteran one time, she was almost falling out of her chair. She was just getting sicker and sicker and sicker," Johnson said. "So I rolled straight up to the social worker at the VA and told her my problem. I said, 'This lady needs help right now.' Well, they took care of her right then. There was a whole line of people there. Yes sir, I helped that veteran."