- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs said Monday it will receive grants worth a combined $500,000 to provide free transportation to medical appointments for military veterans living in 10 rural counties.

The money from the Veterans Administration will go to transportation agencies in Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Lake, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Wallowa and Wheeler counties, all of which have a population density of fewer than seven people per square mile.

Nearly 9,500 veterans live in the Oregon counties and many must travel hours for treatment at Veterans Administration medical centers in Bend, Portland, Roseburg and other cities, said Tyler Francke, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Oregon has secured the grants since 2014. The first year, it received $400,000 because only eight counties participated, but in 2015 Lake and Harney counties joined the program and the state netted $500,000 - a maximum of $50,000 for each county, he said.

“When you’re talking about these counties, really no matter where you’re going you’re looking at a pretty big trip,” he said.

In Wheeler County, Oregon’s least populous county with just 1,441 people, the grants help Wheeler County Community Transportation provide service to 33 veterans who range in age from 75 to 95, said Linda Glawe, a dispatcher.

The drivers are all volunteers, she said, and trips to veterans medical centers can easily make for a 14-hour day.

Some riders try to donate $5 or $10 for the lift, but most live on limited incomes, she said.

The grant money helps make up the difference when one trip can mean $60 in gas alone.

“It’s a blessing because it helps us stay afloat,” Glawe said.

Last year, programs in the 10 participating counties logged more than 274,600 miles and spent 9,871 hours on the road, Francke said.

The 5,453 trips accounted for nearly half of the trips provided nationally under the Veterans Administration’s Highly Rural Transportation Grant program, he added.

Nearly 300 counties in 25 states qualify as highly rural counties and can apply for the grant money.

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Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus

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