Marines say free-ride service on Okinawa doesn’t take business away from local taxis

Cpl. Sarah Stegall of Fidelis Rides checks the blood-alcohol level of a volunteer driver, Cpl. Angelo Garavito, recently at Camp Foster, Okinawa.


By AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2019

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A volunteer program on Okinawa that provides servicemembers with free rides after a weekend night on the town is not meant to compete with local taxi drivers, a base commander said recently.

Created in March by 1st Sgt. Jacob Karl to help Marines without cars or a lot of spending money, Fidelis Rides provides free lifts on Friday and Saturday nights to any servicemember who requests one. American Forces Network and the Social Networking Service Okinawa Facebook page have both publicized the service.

But a pair of local newspapers — the Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times — reported recently that “Y-plate taxi services” were taking business away from local taxi companies.

The all-volunteer service is not a money-making venture and is not meant to compete with local taxi services, said Col. Vincent Ciuccoli, commander of Camp Foster and Camp Lester. Marine Corps Installations Pacific in a July 12 Facebook post stated that providing ride-sharing services for money without a taxi license is illegal under Japanese law.

“We are not trying to steal any customers from local taxi drivers,” he said. “Those servicemembers who call us don’t have money to get a taxi anyway.”

Fidelis Rides operates from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. About 20 regular volunteers in the program spare as many as 10 hours a night for the program. With 100-150 volunteers, Fidelis Rides could cover the entire island more often, Ciuccoli said.

“Currently, we are covering the Kadena, Foster and Futenma areas, but if we get enough volunteers in the future, we may be able to expand the program’s hours and areas,” he said. Cpl. Angelo Garavito, 21, of Headquarters and Support Battalion, has been volunteering for three months, usually all night Fridays and Saturdays, because he’d rather help others than get drunk or party, he said.

Any active-duty servicemember, their spouses and dependents are welcome to volunteer as a dispatcher, driver or as an A-driver that navigates and assists the driver, Ciuccoli said. The program also needs volunteers to serve as a marketing person to spread the word or administrative workers to keep the volunteer logs.

Volunteer drivers must have a valid license under the status of forces agreement, car insurance, well-maintained vehicles with Japan Compulsory Insurance and base access, Ciuccoli said.

There are no specific rules on the age for volunteering, but Ciuccoli said he feels “more comfortable” if the dependents are at least 18 years old and accompanied by their active-duty sponsors while providing rides for servicemembers.

“This is a great program for young Marines or even high school seniors to learn the new roads off base or have a chance to talk to Marines and learn about us,” he said.

The program is run from the Camp Foster USO office, which also hosts a late-night meal program until 2 a.m.

When the phone rings on a typical Friday or Saturday night, a dispatcher coordinates with volunteer driver teams – one driver and one A-driver – to send a car to pick up servicemembers on-and off-base. Three volunteer cars usually cover 110 miles and pick up 80-100 passengers per night, Ciuccoli said.

“We are happy to support our servicemembers for such a wonderful program,” said Angela Tom, a center manager for USO Camp Foster.

Fidelis Rides is available only to active-duty servicemembers of all branches; however, friends or family accompanying the servicemember are welcome to ride with him or her.

Cpl. Sarah Stegall, 24, of Headquarters and Support Battalion, said the volunteer driver is checked out before he or she is dispatched.

“The driver must pass the Breathalyzer test first,” Stegall said. The car is inspected to ensure it’s in proper condition and insured, and the driver is checked for a valid license, she said.

“Lastly, the volunteer driver must sign the statement of understanding before taking off,” she said.

The volunteers may not accept money in exchange for the ride and they must pay all of their costs in gas and tolls.

“This is a grassroots volunteer program for [a quality-of-life] initiative,” Ciuccoli said. “We are not funded nor operated by command. If you want to help people who don’t have that much money to get a taxi, please join us.”

Those on Okinawa who’d like to use Fidelis Rides or volunteer can call 090-6861-3348. The group also has a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/FidelisRides.

Twitter: @AyaIchihashi

Fidelis Rides provides free lifts on Friday and Saturday night to any servicemember who requests one. The Camp Foster, Okinawa-based service is operated by volunteers.

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