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What: To volunteer as a driver or schedule a ride, call the Farmington unit of the Disabled American Veterans at 505-793-1782.

FARMINGTON — Drive a van and help a veteran.

That's the message of a local volunteer-based program that needs more drivers to transport area veterans to Albuquerque for medical appointments each week.

The Farmington unit of Disabled American Veterans offers the free round trip van service on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Volunteers drive veterans to and from the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center for everything from routine checkups to chemotherapy.

Drivers begin the day early, often revving up the 15-passenger van as early as 5:30 a.m. to pick up veterans at locations around Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield.

For the last three years, Farmington woman Brenda Hunt has spent much of each week coordinating the van's pickup and drop-off schedule.

"If you're a veteran and you need medical treatment in Albuquerque, we proudly provide the service," Hunt said. "It doesn't matter if you're disabled or not, what age you are, what war you were in. We're like the post office: We are there."

Hunt has also been a rider more than 100 times herself, traveling down U.S. Highway 550 for back, knee and foot appointments to address injuries from her time in the U.S. Army.

"The drivers, like the passengers, are like family," Hunt said. "You really get a deep appreciation for their service and what they're going through. In the back of your mind, you're dedicated to each other."

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Hunt arranges rides for area veterans with the DAV program vans that operate from Cortez and Durango, both in Colorado.

Because she is low on volunteer drivers, she has relied lately on drivers from Colorado to fill in.

"It's upsetting to have so few drivers available to make the trip because I get calls constantly from local veterans who have no other way to access medical care without someone to drive them," Hunt said. "Some veterans are blind, have bodily injuries that keep them from being able to drive themselves, lack a driver's license or car or simply cannot make the trip on their own."

One of those riders is Dixie VanDruss of Kirtland, a retired U.S. Navy yeoman. VanDruss relies on the van to get to Albuquerque for cardiology and hearing treatment.

"I used to have to pay someone to take me before the van was available, or ride the Greyhound bus and take a cab to the hospital from the station," VanDruss said. "The wonderful drivers and the van service are a lifesaver."

And she means that literally.

Years ago, VanDruss had a heart attack while riding in the van on the way back from Albuquerque. Thanks to the training and quick thinking of the driver, she was able to board a medical helicopter and underwent open-heart surgery.

"That's the quality of the people who help veterans, many of them veterans themselves," VanDruss said.

But you need not be a veteran to volunteer to drive the van.

Candidates are given general physical and tuberculin skin tests and training, Hunt said.

In appreciation of their service, drivers are honored at an annual banquet and receive volunteer pins for miles driven. They also get free meals in Albuquerque.

Doug Troxel volunteers his time driving the van, bringing along his Kindle to catch up on his reading before the return trip back to Farmington.

He has also been a rider himself he had appointments to see an oncologist and his favorite part is the camaraderie shared during the drive.

"The people that stick with it really enjoy the good conversation and fun we all have," Troxel said.

U.S. Navy veteran Doyle Wayne Bradford is Hunt's top driver. Since 2004, he had logged more than 6,000 hours behind the wheel. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis forced him to keep his eye on his health and recovery, and he is not able to drive now.

"People who drive and ride both appreciate it so much, getting along just like one happy family," Bradford said. "It's a good deal, and the medical center in Albuquerque is one of the top hospitals in the state."

The family atmosphere in the van led to a surprising genealogy discovery.

Hunt and Bradford learned they were distant cousins during a drive.

"Now I call him "cuz' which he tolerates in good nature," Hunt said. "It's really amazing what you can learn (driving or riding in the van). You learn incredible history, not from textbooks, but from the stories people share."

James Fenton can be reached at jfenton@daily-times.com; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.