Jan. 3—The need for public transportation in Mineral County is not going to go away. It grows annually, and with it, so do the services as best as they can.
The Mineral County Pioneer Council has mini-vans transporting people to Missoula as well as in-county on scheduled runs. The Covid-19 pandemic held up construction of their new facility, which will be west of Mineral Community Hospital in Superior, but is back on schedule to be built next spring.
Recent news of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority making the cut for the return of passenger rail service has generated some buzz, even if it is a minimum of five years away.
For veterans enrolled in the VA Healthcare System, the Mineral County Disabled American Veterans (DAV) has been extremely busy.
"Any veteran living in Mineral County is eligible for transportation to their VA approved appointments," explained Marry Jo Berry, Local Area Coordinator and volunteer driver. "Besides Mineral County we have also picked up veterans in Lake County and Missoula to take them to appointments, and we have taken veterans to Helena, Kalispell and Great Falls as needed. We will pick you up at your door, wait for you to be done and deliver you back to your home."
Mineral County became active with the DAV in October of 2011.
"Our first vehicle was a Ford 1-ton window van with 243,000 miles that had a good engine but was only two-wheel drive and rode roughly and was noisy. That was replaced with the 2009 Explorer which suited us better for a long time," shared long time DAV volunteer driver Glenn Koepke.
However, that rig had seen better days itself.
"Today it has 188,827 miles and will be going up for sale in the next couple months. Herman Bernaking was the driving force into Mineral County getting a van. At that time, we had eight drivers," Berry said.
She also stated that she would like to visit with people who could find time to become a volunteer driver and share the personal benefits of performing this service. Ginny Tubbs is the newest driver and enjoys the drive and the passengers.
"I have a playlist of the veteran's choice of music that I play when we're driving in that they like and we have great conversations while it's in the background," she smiles.
The three drivers travel to Missoula almost daily and there are times a driver makes two trips with two different vets in a day. "We probably do more trips to hospitals and private practices than to the VA clinic," Koepke shared.
The DAV office in Helena has watched this program help veterans for over a dozen years and has upgraded their vehicles accordingly.
"We have two Ford Flex's; a 2015 and the 2013 that we borrowed from Helena. We just got the 2023 Ford Explorer XLT," Berry said. " Helena requires that our vehicles be kept in a secure location, so we park all three at the Mineral County Courthouse."
Berry said that since 1996 Ford has donated 199 vehicles to DAV's fleet nationwide, that's in addition to the 2,967 Ford vans purchased by DAV at a cost of more than $65 million. In April of 2023 Ford donated six Ford Explorer XLT's at a cost of $133,000 and Mineral County was one of the recipients of this donation. DAV pays for insurance, gas, and maintenance of the vehicle.
For veterans that require an electric or hydraulic lift to enter, Montana VA Health Care has a Veteran Transportation Service (VTS) handicap bus that is available for someone in a wheelchair but VTS does require 72-hour notice. That's not necessarily the case with the Mineral County DAV, Berry said.
"When you have an appointment, it is best to just give me a call and get you in the book for that day. I'd like a little notice if possible. (406) 822-2213.
Montana VA Health Care System recently had a Volunteer Recognition reception at the Hilton Garden Inn in Missoula to honor all the volunteer drivers and coordinators for their service to the veterans in Montana, and the Mineral County DAV drivers were recognized for their service.
Ginny Tubbs for over 300 hours. Glenn Koepke for over 3,000 hours and 11 years of service. And Mary Jo Berry received the 15,000 Hour Exceptional Honor Award and The Presidents Lifetime Achievement Award for 12 years of service. Approximately 16,118 miles were spent transporting veterans back and forth to appointments.
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