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Rickety buses shuttle Vero vets to West Palm VA Hospital

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of April 5, 2012)
Photo: Driver Laszio “Snooky” Kozmer helps load William Morris on to the bus.

The old man's hand shakes as he runs his fingers through a plastic grocery bag trying to determine if he has all his medicines for the doctors in West Palm Beach.

A couple trying to sleep in the seats in front of Phillip Katrovitz stir as he continues to churn the hard plastic bottles, their noise made harsher by the crinkling bag.

After he stops, the old bus creaks and groans as it rolls through the still dark streets of Vero Beach and the sounds become a lullaby again to the old veterans who will sit on the bus for the next few hours until they arrive in West Palm Beach at day-break.

Katrovitz, 80, made the drive from Vero Beach to the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Palm Beach on his own until about six months ago. That’s when the realities of his age and the price of gas made him think about his options.

One day last week, he was one of 17 veterans who boarded the bus in Indian River County and were taken to the VA hospital for treatment, therapy and appointments with doctors.

Katrovitz hoped to exchange some of the medicines sent to him in bulk for money, but the hospital would not do it.

Still, for Katrovitz, the day went well in West Palm Beach, thanks to the Indian River County Veterans Council that provided him and the other veterans with a free ride to West Palm Beach and back.

“You know, even if I was a millionaire, I think I’d still come down here to West Palm Beach; they give you the red carpet treatment” says Katrovitz, an old Navy man who served in the Korean War.

That red carpet treatment includes the bus service to and from the hospital for the wounded and aged warriors that served in the military.

Indian River County has done an exceptional job of ensuring that those of its estimated 18,000 veterans who wish to seek care can get to West Palm Beach if they want to, says Patrick Emmik, who works for the VA fleet services department.

The local veterans group spent the better part of the last 10 years trying to raise enough money to replace the fleet of two buses that takes on average 250 veterans to the hospital in West Palm Beach each month.

So far, the group has raised enough money to buy one steeply discounted bus.  That bus, just recently purchased, is not yet on the road.

Now, the Indian River Veterans Council is starting again trying to raise enough money to buy a second bus. The odometers on the current buses in the fleet are each pushing toward 200,000 miles.

Some days it is not unheard of to put more than 340 miles on a bus, especially when passenger pickups can mean 20 stops at each end of the county including the barrier island, said Laszio “Snooky” Kozmer.

Kozmer has been driving the veterans since 2005 when 83-year-old Bob Drake realized he was getting too old to drive his fellow veterans to West Palm Beach after doing it for 10 years.

“It was a great experience,” Drake says. “I learned a lot. I learned a lot by listening to the people. And I really enjoyed their company.

“I’d still like to be able to drive, but I cannot,” he says.

Now, Drake schedules the pickups and drop offs for the veterans while the president of the council, Martin Zickert, tries to raise tens of thousands of dollars for another bus.

Most of the stops are in the parking lots of strip malls or at intersections along a city street. There is home pick up for those that need it.

The bus engines roar to life about 4:30 each morning and the pickups begin.

“Oh we’ve got a big crowd here,” says Kozmer as he pulls into a strip mall along Oslo Road and US 1.

“Good morning,” he says as the bus doors fling open and several more men board.

After one more stop, Kozmer will be able to get on the turnpike.

“We really need a new bus. The ones we have are older than dinosaurs,” Kozmer says.

The cost of a new bus is about $120,000. A slightly used one like the veterans council was able to get recently came with a price tag of $65,000.

Raising the money has taken a long time and at times it has been frustrating.

Then, out of the blue, another veteran’s organization, the Sebastian-based American Security Council, stepped in and said it would be willing to help with a fund-raising event to raise money for a second bus.

“This shows you what veteran’s will do for other veterans,” Zickert says.

The event is scheduled for 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 14 at Archie’s Sea Breeze, 401 S. Ocean Drive,  Fort Pierce, and includes several bands, 50/50 raffles and a Poker Run. The Poker Run starts at 11 a.m. at the Speakeasy in Vero Beach with stops at the Vero Beach Sport’s Bar and Waldo’s on the island before heading south to Fort Pierce for the final two stops.

Having the buses available is a blessing, said Rudy Paskl, 77, who spends his winters in Sebastian and summers in New Jersey. He said there is no known type of shuttle service for him in New Jersey.

“This is really a big help,” Paskl says.