Steamboat Springs Jim McGee slowed the car down as the lonely road in front of him disappeared in a fog of blinding snow.
Miles before this happened, dozens of deer edged closer to the rural highway in South Routt County. Some of the animals looked like they might jump into the road at any moment and cause a disaster.
This is mile 353 of McGee’s semi-regular, 400-mile commute to and from the VA Medical Center in Grand Junction.
Some drivers would grow frustrated or grip the steering wheel tighter during this dicey drive on a winding stretch of Colorado Highway 131.
McGee simply kept looking at the short span of road in front of him and cracked a few jokes with the fellow veteran sitting in the passenger seat.
“I’ve made this trip so many times, it’s almost automatic,” McGee said earlier in the trip. “Plus, I always enjoy the view.”
From Navy hurricane hunter to radio disc jockey to Realtor, McGee, 69, has held many jobs in his life.
His latest isn’t official, and it comes with a minimal paycheck.
But it sure is unique.
In the past year, he has volunteered to help drive veterans to the hospital for appointments as routine as an eye exam.
Many of the passengers either can’t physically make the drive themselves, or they can’t afford to.
These veterans are among the many Routt County residents who still drive hundreds of miles for medical care, either because they can’t use their benefits close to home or they can’t afford the higher price of care.
‘I need a ride’
In 2002, veterans here decided they needed more help transporting dozens of their fellow veterans to and from medical appointments in Grand Junction.
The veterans had a number of reasons to ask for help in making the drive.
Some didn’t have the right cars to make the trip, especially in the winter. Others have a disability related to their service and can’t travel the hundreds of miles themselves.
“If we didn’t help them out, some of these guys would be in huge trouble,” Routt County Veterans Affairs Officer Mike Condie recently said in his office in Steamboat Springs. “It’s quite a service we offer.”
Veterans here in Routt County typically have received $5,000 to $5,400 per year from the Colorado Veterans Trust Fund for the past 12 years to hire drivers, pay for gas and rent vehicles.
It’s a small dollar amount, but the money has a big impact.
Condie, who has multiple sclerosis, depends on the program to make frequent medical appointments in Grand Junction and Denver.
This year, the local veterans transportation program hit a milestone. For the first time, it is projected to use up all of its grant funding and may need more to make it through the next annual funding cycle.
That has Vietnam-era veteran Jim Stanko, who oversees funding for the trips, starting to think about other funding sources or a more coordinated transportation effort with other counties.
He speculated that better outreach from the VA and the insurance requirements from the Affordable Care Act are behind an uptick in the number of veterans who are using VA benefits locally.
Neighboring Moffat County has a dedicated van to make the trips to the hospital, but simply sharing it with Routt has complications.
Ed Wilkinson, Condie’s counterpart in Moffat County, recently said he’s more than willing to collaborate and share rides with Routt veterans.
But for some, especially veterans who live in the southern part of the county, it would just add more miles to the trip for them to head west to Craig and then get in another vehicle.
The more immediate solution could be more volunteers like McGee stepping in to make the drives.
A scenic drive
McGee woke up early March 26, ready to spend at least six hours in a car for a simple hearing exam that would last a matter of minutes.
It would be the first time as a volunteer driver that he actually needed to stop at the VA hospital for an appointment that was his own.
He arrived at Steamboat Motors at 8:30 a.m. and paid a discounted veterans rate of about $39 to rent the car for the day.
The soft-spoken man then took out his Samsung Galaxy smartphone and quickly synced it with the car’s stereo system.
He adjusted his black Steamboat baseball cap and cracked a few jokes.
As the car traveled through Oak Creek Canyon, he talked about his military service.
In the 1960s, he would fly out of Florida and Puerto Rico in a WC-121N Super Constellation and fly right into hurricanes.
Radar wasn’t as advanced back then, so the military would send pilots and crews out to fly into the storms and help track their movement.
On other missions, he would plot the arctic ice ledge so U.S. submarines knew where they could use sonar to find other subs.
“I’ve been a few places and done a few things,” McGee said nonchalantly.
About 9 a.m., McGee arrives at an apartment complex in Oak Creek to pick up Tom Rossi.
Rossi, 85, served in the Army from 1951 to 1953 and spent most of that time at Fort Benning, Ga.
The man’s quick sense of humor is immediately apparent.
The tone of the drive changed quickly as the two men swapped stories about their service.
When they reach extreme South Routt County, they agree to take a scenic route. It’s a gravel road from Burns to Dotsero that hugs the Colorado River.
The weather was good, and a golden eagle took flight across the river to the delight of both men.
The detour seemed to make the drive easier.
Nothing close to home
Will Steamboat Springs ever get a VA medical facility and end these long drives to Denver and Grand Junction?
“Having a closer health facility is out of the question,” Stanko said in Steamboat. “It has been suggested, and the VA has kicked this idea around, but the VA and all the veterans’ organizations strongly oppose it. We just don’t have enough veterans in our area.”
The VA hospital in Grand Junction depends on the high number of veterans it sees to get funding.
Paul Sweeney, the hospital’s customer relations chief, said funding doesn’t kick in until a veteran has come for two years in a row.
If rural veterans were to stop coming, the hospital inevitably would lose out on funding, and the loss could harm the quality of care provided in the metro areas.
In the absence of a new health facility, the VA has taken steps to better serve its rural veterans.
The online systems where veterans can access health information and send questions to physicians have been improved.
A patients’ advocate serves as a liaison between the doctors and patients, and the VA has established a policy to respond to calls on the same day they are filed. And in some cases, veterans who need urgent or emergency care can be reimbursed by the VA when they use hospitals closer to home.
When asked about their experience at the hospital, veterans here praise the care they get in Grand Junction.
But the estimated 1,500 veterans in Routt County have not been a sizable enough group to lure a new VA medical clinic and its benefits here.
The regional veterans population only was big enough to warrant the establishment of a VA Telehealth Clinic in Craig. It was the result of an intense lobby effort by Stanko and other veterans.
“We kept harassing and fighting until we convinced (lawmakers) it doesn’t matter if we have one vet or 3,000 vets, we still have to drive 200 miles to get to a clinic,” Stanko said. “We harassed congressmen, we harassed anyone who would listen to us. We wrote thousands of letters, and we finally got to them.”
While the Telehealth Clinic has expanded its services in recent years, it still cannot match all of the services offered at the VA hospital in Grand Junction.
‘Kind of fun’
McGee and Rossi arrive in Grand Junction about noon, an hour before their appointments start.
McGee drops off Rossi at an eye clinic to be tested for cataracts. He’s been there enough times to know how to get to the place without a GPS.
McGee then goes to the VA hospital and prepares to be tested for tinnitus, a loud ringing in the ears.
The ringing can be enough to wake McGee up at night, and he suspects it may have been caused by all of those hours he spent flying in planes without hearing protection.
The exam takes about 45 minutes. At the end, he’s told to expect a decision from the VA sometime in the coming weeks.
Such a long wait doesn’t discourage McGee.
He said he expected it.
The drive back to Steamboat is more eventful than the drive to Grand Junction as a big spring snowstorm moves into the area.
As the miles and the hours drag on, McGee and Rossi talk about the cars they’ve owned and the jobs they’ve held since their military service ended so many years ago.
“This just gives me something to do,” McGee says when he’s asked what he thinks about the long drive. “I enjoy the views. I enjoy the animals. I enjoy talking to new people. It’s actually kind of fun.”