Brooke commissioners learn VA van driver stipends will stop effective July 1

WELLSBURG — On July 1, the state of West Virginia will stop issuing stipends to drivers who transport veterans to VA Hospitals, at the request of the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Commissioner A.J Thomas announced during Tuesday’s Brooke County Commission meeting that he has been in contact with West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance Cabinet Secretary Dennis Davis to discuss how the commissioners might be able to help.

“He (Davis) forwarded a letter to me that they (West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance) received from the DAV, or whoever they get their funds from to purchase the vans,” said Thomas. “It was basically a cease-and-desist letter, insisting that the state of West Virginia stop providing stipends, and that if it did not stop providing the stipends then the DAV would no longer provide the funding for vans.”

Thomas added the same conditions would apply if the county provides the stipends.

Commissioner Stacey Wise said the issue behind the funding is due to the DAV being a nonprofit organization.

“They (the DAV) are saying if you are paying the drivers then it’s not a volunteer organization,” Wise said.

Local veteran and DAV driver Robert Cheeks does not agree with the reasoning behind the change.

“Not trying to be smart or anything, but those people are stupid,” said Cheeks. “You aren’t going to get drivers. It’s not like you volunteer for two hours. It’s seven to 12 hours. Not enough people are going to volunteer for that.”

Cheeks noted that 19 veterans this week needed to be transported, and he knows how important it is for veterans to be able to make it to the hospital.

“I wouldn’t be here without the VA Hospital,” said Cheeks. “If not for them, I wouldn’t have received my liver transplant.”

During a phone interview held Tuesday, Davis said the DAV was formed in 1986, and that the state only started paying the stipends a few years ago.

“The DAV requested we join the other 49 states and end payment to be an all-volunteer program,” said Davis. “There are some 13,000 volunteers across the country.”

The commissioners said they will continue to work on the issue.“It’s complicated,” said Commissioner Tim Ennis.

Other matters discussed at Tuesday’s meeting included the retirement of county Emergency Management Director Bob Fowler that will be effective July 31.

Fowler noted he would like to stay involved on a limited basis.

“It’s been challenging at times, but I enjoyed working here,” said Fowler. “I have a grandson and a lot of things to do, but I will be here to help in the transition process. I’m not leaving entirely, just mostly.”

The commissioners thanked Fowler for his service over the years.