by Paul Rignell
Often one or two days a week, if not more, Richard Boecker’s home phone in Big Lake rings with a call from the Sherburne County Government Center in Elk River.
Staff from the Veterans Service Office is letting him know there is a veteran somewhere in the county who has requested a van ride to the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care campus in St. Cloud for one or more medical appointments the following day.
Many weeks he will have shared with the county staff which days he is available. Boecker, 83, is one of four regular volunteer van drivers that the Elk River office will send across the county to pick up veterans for transport either to the St. Cloud or Minneapolis campuses. But he will drive just to St. Cloud. That has been his rule throughout his 13 years for the county.
After Boecker and his wife, Janet, were raised near Sioux Falls, S.D., they spent their earlier adult years living in St. Louis Park and New Hope before his retirement as an auto parts warehouse foreman and manager in 1988. He logged many miles through several years, sometimes at a snail’s pace, driving from their New Hope home to his warehouse in Bloomington.
He has never been interested in navigating heavy traffic as a retiree. He shared that even for pleasure trips into downtown Minneapolis, he prefers just to ride with maybe one of his daughters, sons-in-law or adult grandchildren behind the wheel.
For the veterans of Sherburne County, it’s much easier for Boecker to leave his home in Big Lake, drive his 2010 Ford Fusion away from St. Cloud to get a county van in Elk River, maybe picking up a passenger in Zimmerman or near Princeton before heading back west, waiting on the VA campus sometimes half of a day while his riders see their physicians, and then he follows his trail back home.
Some days, Boecker brings two or three veterans for a day of appointments, but on one recent Wednesday his route was relatively simple, as his passenger list included just one man, an Army veteran living close to Highway 10 in Clear Lake Township.
The chat to St. Cloud covered many topics — from the price of gas, to a shared passion for reading, to the beautiful wildlife in rural Sherburne County, to the passenger’s schedule of appointments that would begin late morning and continue past 3 p.m.
But Boecker could understand much of what went into his passenger’s service time, as well.
Boecker and the county’s other volunteer van drivers, too, are all veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
One man’s story
Through his late teen years in Canova, S.D., Boecker spent time working at a grain elevator and at a creamery owned by his father, a veteran of World War I.
Boecker took some college courses at both the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University before running out of money, and he started work as a laborer for John Morrell & Co. in Sioux Falls, where he was employed when enlisting in the Air Force. “I was about to be drafted, so I enlisted,” he said.
For his service that ran December 1950 to September 1954, Boecker’s work included time in a career guidance office at March AFB near Riverside, Calif., after tech school at Lowry AFB near Denver, Colo.
He continued maintaining officers’ records in orderly rooms at two bases in Korea during the conflict. “I was well behind the lines,” he said. “I didn’t do any shooting, or get shot.”
Last spring, Boecker was honored at an annual St. Cloud VA volunteer event for totaling nearly 7,000 hours of driver service in assisting patients.
After driving his passengers to the doors of their clinics, his first stop — sometimes across the campus — is at a building where he records his name as volunteering for the day.
Then, when it’s close to noon, he visits a volunteer coordinator in an office down the hall for a greeting and a complimentary meal pass to get lunch.
After driving back to the VA canteen for maybe roast beef and mashed potatoes or whatever the day’s hot special should feature, he turns around again to drive closer to the building with a lounge that is designated for the drivers. The current lounge set-up is relatively new with more features, Boecker says, not hesitating to add: “If they hadn’t opened that, I don’t know if I’d still be driving.”
The room is equipped with such luxuries as daily newspapers and a pair of recliners, making it just too easy to catch an afternoon nap.
On this day, Boecker opened his eyes in the lounge with about 30 minutes to spare before he would need to leave and be ready to bring his veteran passenger home to Clear Lake. Boecker spots a cribbage board and playing cards lying prominently on a game table just a few steps away from the recliners, and upon asking and finding out that the only other person in the lounge is, in fact, a seasoned cribbage player, he asks why so much time has been wasted resting, and he shuffles the cards to get in one quick game before grabbing the coats.
On the road back into Sherburne County, Boecker enjoys bringing the other veteran back into the conversation. When he’s driving, lunching or napping, he’s hardly laboring like he did at his father’s creamery or in Air Force basic training, but the hours comprise a service that is open only to a select group of people who may be best at relating to the VA patients. “I feel satisfaction in knowing that I’m doing something worthwhile,” Boecker said. It doesn’t hurt to be good-humored — “You’ve got to be kind of a character to be a driver.”
Boecker must schedule and undergo an annual physical in order to maintain his own eligibility for VA benefits. “Other than that,” he deals with some arthritis, but “it’s very seldom that I come here for myself,” he said, adding: “These people have taken very good care of me.”
Sherburne County’s VA drivers must meet standards of the Disabled American Veterans volunteer van program by taking safety training and being screened for sight and hearing.
Eligible veteran passengers must be able to enter and exit a vehicle by themselves. The vans are not handicapped-accessible, and the drivers are not expected to assist their passengers in moving.
The county will schedule regular rides any weekday to St. Cloud, but usually only Monday through Thursday to Minneapolis. The Veterans Service staff also keeps tighter restrictions on the hours they will send drivers into the metro, usually accepting no riders for appointments before 9 a.m. or after 2 p.m.
The hours for St. Cloud are a little looser. “We don’t like to schedule before 8 a.m. (at St. Cloud),” said Janet Barlage, from the county office, “but Richard, he’s fairly accommodating.”
Sherburne County veterans are invited to learn about all services and benefits for which they may be eligible by calling the Elk River office at 763-765-3100.