Katie Burford/Durango Herald
It is before dawn, and Mike Amato, the retired superintendent of the city of Durango water-treatment plant, is sitting in the driver’s seat of the Disabled American Veterans SUV doing paperwork under pale yellow light.
Outside, it’s cool and quiet in the parking lot of La Plata Electric Association headquarters in Bodo Industrial Park, where the SUV is parked when not in use.
Amato, the barrel-chested son of an Italian immigrant, is a volunteer driver for the “vet van,” which makes twice-weekly trips to Albuquerque to take veterans to medical appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital there. Although there is a clinic for veterans in Durango, it provides little more than primary care, and to see most any specialist, veterans must make a 12-hour (or more) round trip to Albuquerque.
On this spring morning, the first passenger to arrive is Brian Messick, an Army veteran in his early 50s who has an abscessed tooth.
“The pain is excruciating,” he says.
After leaving Durango, the next stop is a gas station in Bloomfield, where Amato, an Air Force veteran, picks up another veteran, Dixie Van Druff, a Kirtland, N.M., resident who served in the Navy in the early ’70s. She’s going to the hospital for a procedure and will stay overnight. Her daughter is with her.
Amato, who is talkative and chipper despite the early hour, enthuses, “It’s an honor to drive you guys and a privilege.”
The vets share stories – Messick was stationed in Germany during the Cold War, Amato was a nuclear-weapons specialist in Colorado and Van Druff was in New Orleans.
Messick says his son is in the Army and had served in Afghanistan.
“A lot of returning soldiers – my son was an example – they said they had no problems,” he says during a conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder.
His son, who in some ways found being home harder than being at war, re-enlisted after returning.
“I said, ‘I knew you were going to do it,’” he said.
Amato, who drives about once a month, says sometimes he has one passenger, sometimes five. Some he sees fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he suspected many young veterans are resisting seeking services.
“A lot of service people ... they’re just too proud. (They say), give it to the person that needs it,” he says.
After a pit stop in Cuba, N.M., we arrive at the VA hospital in Albuquerque. He drops off Messick and Van Druff and goes to the designated parking area for DAV vans. There is a line of them from small towns all across New Mexico. Some are shiny new, like Durango’s, some are worn.
After more paperwork, he waits. First, he hits the hospital’s PX, which is like a mini Walmart. Next, the cafeteria, then the lobby, which is bustling.
From a seat in the waiting area, he takes it in. The atmosphere is like an aging, urban community center. Earlier, a mariachi band was playing in the tiny coffee shop, but now two long-haired baristas working the counter are listening to the Rolling Stones. Veterans, young and old, pass in wheelchairs, sometimes with whole families in tow.
“You see every manner of affliction,” Amato said. “Some just break your heart and they all did it to serve our country.”
About 1 p.m., Messick appears. They had pulled his tooth and given him medication. He’s elated the pain has receded.
On the drive home, Amato talks about career and family while Messick dozes in the back. During the course of the day, it’s become clear that, as a driver, he enjoys the proximity to raw humanity, to survivors who have dispensed with all need for pretense.
“You take a left turn or a right turn and your whole life can change,” he says. “I’ve always loved that about life.”