By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
Lawrence Pope wakes some mornings before the sun, loads a van with ailing veterans, and drives them to the Memphis VA Medical Center for treatment.
Then he waits. And waits. And waits.
It’s not rare for 12 hours to pass before each of his passengers see a doctor. When they’re done, Pope loads them into the van and drives back to Tupelo.
He does this about twice a week. For free.
Pope is one of three veterans who voluntarily shuttles fellow compatriots to and from the nearest VA hospital. George Bogardus and Jimmy Sparks also share the responsibility and the honor. Without their service, dozens of veterans would struggle to access health care covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We have 30 or 40 veterans who use this service,” said Bernard Evans, director of the Lee County Veterans Affairs Office, which represents more than 5,100 former GIs.
“Some of them don’t have transportation,” Evans said. “Some don’t own a vehicle or are even in physical shape to drive.”
The service began in 2004 when the county was able to purchase a passenger van. Pope became its first driver, then Bogardus, then Sparks. Now the trio splits the trips, which average four or five days a week.
“I enjoy helping folks,” said Sparks, who spent four years in the Navy and 31 years in the Mississippi National Guard. “We’ve all got similar stories; some better, some worse.”
Sparks began driving the van after retiring from the National Guard. He didn’t want to sit around bored, and decided to give back to those who served their country. His fellow drivers cite similar reasons for becoming regular drivers.
Through their service, they have gotten to know many of the veterans in Lee County – those like John Hardin, whose chronic eye problems took him to Memphis twice monthly; and Jerry Bacon, whose cancer required weekly trips.
“I don’t have a personal vehicle, and the service is free so I take advantage of it,” Bacon said. “If I didn’t have it, I’d struggle, beg, borrow or steal. I’m glad it’s available.”
Hardin says he enjoys the company during those long van rides. Because he recently moved here from Chicago, his social network outside the veterans community is slim.
“We share different military and life experiences,” he said. “It’s enjoyable for me.”
But all three drivers are senior citizens, and they know their time behind the wheel is limited. Pope, who served in the Army during the Korean War, admitted poor circulation prevents him from driving two days in a row.
For that reason, Evans said he is training two new drivers and is going through the process to get himself certified, as well.
“They have to have a clear driving record, pass background investigation, get a physical. They have to get tested annually, and if they don’t pass, they can’t drive,” Evans said. “It’s a pretty stringent thing just to volunteer to work.”
But it’s rewarding work, said Bogardus, who served in the Army during Vietnam and then in the National Guard from 1978-1996.
And the men say they’ll continue to drive the van as long as their bodies will allow.
“As long as I can go,” Pope said, “I’m going to do it.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.
Need a ride?
If you are a veteran and need free transportation to the Memphis VA Medical Center, contact the Lee County Veterans Affairs Office at (662) 841-9048.