Veterans in need of a ride in western Massachusetts can now make one simple phone call.
Pittsfield’s intermodal center in the heart of downtown is now the site of Soldier On’s Veterans and Families Transportation Call Center. The multi-state veterans’ service agency partnered with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to develop the program, which received a $2 million federal grant. The call center coordinates transportation for veterans and their families traveling to VA medical centers in Leeds, Massachusetts and Albany as well as Pittsfield’s VA clinic. Soldier On President and former BRTA executive director Gary Sheppard says they can also coordinate work, education and shopping trips using existing routes.
“And members of their family – we try to coordinate transportation whether it’s using public transportation, human service transportation, para-transit,” Sheppard said. “In addition to that because it’s in an intermodal center we have Amtrak and Peter Pan.”
Using Soldier On vehicles driven by Soldier On veterans, trips to VA centers come at no cost to the customer. Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal, speaking Friday in Pittsfield, says transportation is government’s responsibility just as taking care of servicemen and women is.
“Soldier On has an open door across Washington because of the reputation that they’ve earned,” Neal said. “That’s what we honor today. For those men and women whether it was Vietnam or Korea, World War II or Iraq and Afghanistan – this comes to their direct assistance. And that’s the government’s responsibility. I always say it’s not the pat on the back when we send them off; it’s honoring the commitment we made to them when they come home. That’s the contract.”
A computer program called RouteMatch allows call center workers to see what trips are available through BRTA buses, MassHealth service and private taxi companies even down to which vehicles are wheelchair accessible. The program can make notification phone calls and send confirmation text messages. The people answering the phones are former service members as well. Senior staff member Paul Brindle was a gunner in the Air Force from 1954 to 1959 and is a former Pittsfield mayor.
“It’s something that all veterans need, especially the senior veterans,” Brindle said. “A lot of them are missing doctor and VA appointments because they don’t have transportation and/or they can’t drive that far. So I think it’s so important to help them and their families.”
Brindle says sometimes the conversation between veterans drifts away from how to get from A to B.
“When were you in? When’d you get out – that type of thing,” Brindle said. “It’s very personal and good conversation.”
Duane Gill is associate director of the VA’s Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System which serves 25,000 veterans, a number he expects will rise as access expands. He says about half of their missed appointments are due to a lack of transportation.
“But if we miss that first linkage and that is just simply getting them into the system and to their appointment then they miss all of the opportunity of getting the healthcare that they deserve and earned,” said Gill.
Soldier On reaches 3,500 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Mississippi. Sheppard says the call center can become a model for those areas and beyond.
“We think, if this is done properly, we here in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Soldier On veterans can be the one call, one click center for other parts of this country,” Sheppard said. “Where we can employ veterans here that take the calls to dispatch, schedule and provide the transportation services in the New Jerseys, Pennsylvanias, New York, Mississippi and elsewhere where we grow.”