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Vets helping vets
Ride Connection recruits veterans to drive fellow veterans through local program
Those who serve their country rarely view their actions as heroic or extraordinary. They accept risks few comprehend, and oftentimes return to a life that may not be what they left. Many are also burdened by physical or emotional challenges that follow them long after their military service has ended.
Helping others, sometimes, stems from having walked in the same boots as someone else.
'The Vietnam vets came home with so much baggage and without much support,' said Chuck Michel, a Troutdale resident who served in the Army during the Vietnam era. 'Even though we now recognize and appreciate the job they did more than we did before, I want to help them do something they can't do for themselves.'
Michel, 69, is a volunteer with Ride Connection's Drive a Hero Program. He is the first veteran in East Multnomah County to sign on with the program, which links former military personnel with other veterans who need assistance with their transportation needs. From doctor appointments to grocery shopping, Drive a Hero is designed to meet the everyday needs of a community least likely to ask for help.
For Michel, it's an opportunity to aid those who returned from service less fortunate than he.
Born in Prineville, but raised in Colorado, Michel enlisted in the Army's Officer Candidate School in January 1966. He served as a tactical officer in Fort Lee, Va., but was also assigned to the military's burial detail, or Honor Guard. It wasn't an easy job, he said, but one that left him with a profound respect for those who continue to struggle with the after-effects of military service.
'(The Honor Guard) is something I'm probably most proud of while I was in the service,' Michel said. 'But I don't think we do enough for our veterans. It makes me feel good to help someone, and it's rewarding because we are so blessed by what these people have done. Military people, in my mind, are all heroes.'
Michel was discharged from the Army as a first lieutenant in November 1968. He had earned a private pilot's license while still in the military, and utilizing the GI Bill, obtained the required ratings and training for a commercial license. He went on to become a flight instructor, aiming for a career as a commercial pilot.
'I had visions of grandeur,' Michel said, laughing. 'But by the time I built my flight hours, I was competing in the job market with guys returning from Vietnam who had lots of hours and experience. I couldn't compete.'
Following his discharge, Michel settled in East County, where he sold insurance before taking on a 30-year career in sales with Freightliner. He retired in 2006 and along with his wife, Patti, moved to Troutdale in 1979. He became active in the community and joined a citizen committee that successfully lobbied voters to approve a new police station for the city.
After seeing a notice for the Drive a Hero Program, he immediately recognized his next endeavor.
'I knew I wanted to do something, and I knew I wanted it to be military,' Michel said. 'My father fought in France during World War I. My uncles were in World War II, as was Patti's father, and my brother was in Korea. It was important for me to give back, and this is another way to do it.'
According to Katrinka Easterday, community outreach specialist with Ride Connection, the Drive a Hero program has answered a need felt most keenly within the veteran community.
'Our customers told us that they had a desire to be driven by other veterans,' Easterday said. 'They appreciated being driven by those who had similar experiences and could speak the same language. What makes the program unique is that it's veteran-to-veteran. But this is not a male-only club. The service is available to all veterans and their spouses and volunteer drivers don't have to be veterans to participate.'
Since its launch this summer, Drive a Hero has been widely received and supported primarily in Washington County. The need for drivers exists throughout the area, Easterday said, but securing a volunteer in East Multnomah County indicates that other veterans are recognizing the valuable impact their time has to offer.
'It's our honor to be there and help them,' she said. 'It's important for us to be supportive of our veterans and their spouses. But we cannot do this alone. We really need other veterans to step forward and make this happen.'
Michel understands the difficulty some veterans have relying on others for assistance, and he's not deterred by the occasional reticence he encounters by some he chauffeurs. It's all about serving those who have served so well before.
'I think I can make a difference,' he said. 'The people I help may not know it and it's not important if anybody else knows. But I'll know.'