As of June 20, the Carroll Area Transit System expanded its veterans shuttle service, which offers county veterans free rides to the Veterans Administration medical center in Baltimore and to Fort Detrick in Frederick.
The shuttle service, which began last November, had been offering rides three days a week, but is now offering service Monday through Friday due to increased demand, according to Frank Valenti, director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services.
"We have gone to five days a week because demand has picked up, which is great because we are now able to get vets to services out of the county," Valenti said.
The idea for a veterans shuttle came out of the Commission on Aging last year according to County Commissioner, Doug Howard, R-District 5.
"I served as the commissioners' liaison for the Commission on Aging, and they identified this as a concern; Carroll County citizens eligible for VA service and for which transportation was an issue. I delved into it and realized we had no service available to get them to the VA hospital," Howard said.
The County Commissioners agreed to fund the shuttle with $25,000, according to Howard, which was given to the Department of Social Services to spend on the Carroll Area Transit System, which operates the actual shuttles.
All veterans are eligible to ride the shuttle for free, according to Valenti, provided they register with him first.
"All they need is a government DD214, a green form that lists all your service. They can use a retired military identification card that is issued by the Department of Defense or a VA medical card," Valenti said. "If they have any one of the three documents, we can register them here and then the veteran can schedule a ride with CATS at their leisure."
At present, riders can catch the shuttle at Carrolltown Center in Eldersburg or at TownMall of Westminster, according to Valenti.
"We are looking at a volunteer in the area that might be able to pick them up at their homes and take them to the malls, that's not cemented yet, but that's in the works," Valenti said.
According to Angela Simons, administrative manager with CATS, the shuttle program only had a few registered users through January of this year and made only two trips, but by May the program had grown to 38 registered users and had made a total of 58 trips since the program began.
"At this point, I am getting requests for at least three to four trips a week, if not more," Simons said.
According to Howard, there are sufficient funds left over from what was originally allocated for the shuttle to keep it operating, even with the expanded schedule, well into next year, but he said he is confident the program will be funded even beyond that point.
"I fully believe that if there is a demonstrated need, our board would step up and meet that need and that it would be the expectation of the citizens as well," Howard said.
The county is also beginning a new service aimed at helping veterans receive the benefits owed to them, according to Howard.
"There is about a two- to three-year delay in veterans getting their benefits, and the state-provided officer is available only one day a month," Howard said. "The Maryland Office of Veterans Affairs said that if we paid for a part-time position, they would train, accredit the person, and give that person access to the VA database.
Howard said that, as far as he knows, Carroll will be the only county to have its own dedicated veterans affairs officer, and postings for the job will be up soon.
"We're looking for people that have had specific experience in the VA process and VA system, that have maybe worked for a service organization in that capacity," Howard said.
For the time being, according to Valenti, the big task is making sure word of the shuttle service reaches all of those veterans who might need it.
"The veteran community is a very self-sufficient community, a very independent community, so we are trying to penetrate into that community and let them know these services are there for them," Valenti said. "There are homeless veterans in the community, veterans without access to transportation. We want to be here to serve the entire population of veterans in the community."
To register for the veterans shuttle service, call Frank Valenti at 410-386-3306.