WILLMAR, Minn. –– It’s 7:45 a.m. on a foggy Tuesday and Wayne Emberland is going over paperwork and chatting with the three military veterans — all men from Willmar — who have medical appointments at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.
The 71-year-old Emberland, who served more than 30 years in the military himself, is driving the vets to their appointments. Emberland’s service included multiple tours of duty in foreign countries and bases all around the U.S. before retiring from the Reserves in 1999 as a chief master sergeant.
He left the parking lot of the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building at 8 a.m. with the veterans.
He had no idea what time the day would end, but said it’s not unusual for trips to the VA to last 10 to 12 hours.
And he loves every minute he spends with the veterans.
“They don’t realize it, but they give something back to me, too,” said Emberland. “It feels good to do it.”
Emberland has been driving Kandiyohi County veterans to the St. Cloud VA for seven years in the volunteer position, which does include an hourly stipend.
So far Emberland has logged 1,000 hours of service.
Next week the St. Cloud VA will honor Emberland for his time on the road helping veterans receive the medical care they need.
“”It’s nice to see him get some recognition for all that he does because he does a wonderful job,” said Trisha Appeldorn, Kandi-yohi County Veterans Service Officer.
Drivers from 10 counties are being recognized during the ceremony, but most of the awards are for 750 hours, she said.
Emberland is one of the few drivers with 1,000 hours.
“Wayne has some long days. Everyone thinks St. Cloud is just an hour away and they’re there and back,” said Appeldorn, adding that many times the van leaves Willmar at 6 a.m. and may not get back until 7 p.m.
But she said Emberland’s service goes far beyond driving.
“He takes care of these veterans. He gets them where they need to go. He makes sure they get to their appointments,” said Appeldorn. “He’s just so kind and nice and he worries about them. He really is a compassionate guy.”
Emberland said he treats the veterans like he wants to be treated — with kindness and respect.
It’s a practice that works “even for those that eat bullets for breakfast,” he said.
The trip back and forth from Willmar to St. Cloud includes a fair share of visiting.
“There are some of them that like to talk — a lot,” he said, with a laugh.
Emberland got the thumbs-up from his passengers.
“Oh yes. I’ve been with Wayne many times,” said Richard Barnes. “He’s a good driver.”
“I love it,” said Gene Johnson. “Good driver? Yup.”
While the vets are at their appointments, Emberland doesn’t sit around in the waiting room but is helping other veterans.
Volunteer drivers in the program are required to receive federal civil service training for driving and responding to emergencies at the VA, including medical situations or if a veteran is lost, he said.
“When we’re there, we’re the eyes and ears for the personnel of the VA,” said Emberland.
Providing transportation for vets to the VA in St. Cloud and Minneapolis is one of the services provided by the county Veterans Service Office.
Appeldorn said another Willmar man, Wendell Johnson, has been driving county veterans to the Minneapolis VA as long as Emberland and probably logged as many hours. But she said the Minneapolis facility apparently doesn’t track the volunteer hours or conduct recognition ceremonies.
Appeldorn said the county’s recently retired 13-passenger van was replaced last month with a new, smooth-riding six-passenger van.
The larger van isn’t needed anymore because “we’re losing a lot of our vets and our trips aren’t as big anymore,” said Appeldorn.
The van was purchased with the help of a state grant, county funds and donations from area service groups.