Dick Marbes has logged a lot of miles over the last 30 years while driving injured and ill veterans in Northeast Wisconsin to their doctor appointments at VA clinics in Milwaukee and, more recently, Green Bay.
He says, "Our mission is to fulfill our promises to the men and women who served."
It's a free service provided by the Disabled American Veterans organization, also known as the DAV. Their passengers are usually on fixed incomes or are unable to drive.
"It's a lot of elderly with no family anymore. They might be blind or hard of hearing."
Marbes is proud of the program he helped build. Back in 1987, it started with just a handful of volunteers driving their personal cars.
"In three years, we pretty much wore them out," he laughs.
Today, they have a fleet of vehicles and 35 volunteer drivers, like Dennis Vande Hey.
"I was in Vietnam and when we came back, we didn't get much of a welcome back. This is my way to show my appreciation to these guys."
There's a lot of camaraderie during the trips as they swap old war stories, but sometimes their conversations turn more therapeutic.
"I see these guys coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with arms and legs missing. That bothers me a lot," says Vande Hey.
Marbes can empathize with those veterans. In the 1950's, he injured his leg in a flight line accident while assigned to a NATO mission in Germany. He developed bone cancer, and doctors had to amputate. Now, it's important to the former airman to help today's returning servicemen and women get the care they need and deserve.
"They've been exposed to it all. They've seen it all, and this is where they come to find their healing, so I get a little choked up, but we're a part of that."
The veterans they serve are grateful for the service. Richard Huguet of Ashwaubenon relies on it and looks forward to the drive to the VA clinic.
"They're fun. They're nice guys. They're great to talk to when they're picking you up," he says.
The free rides program relies on donations to operate.
"We just keep plugging, and somehow we always manage to make our goal," Marbes explains.
As long as the community continues to support them, the veterans can count on Dick and Dennis to keep racking up the miles to fulfill their commitment to their comrades.
"They appreciate what we do, and I appreciate doing it for them," says Vande Hey.
The DAV works in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs to run the free rides program. Right now, there are 36 DAV vans transporting more than 30,000 veterans a year across Wisconsin.
Click here for a list of locations and schedules of DAV vans serving Wisconsin.