Seniors & Aging

Bellingham retiree drives van load of veterans to VA medical appointments in Seattle

More than four decades after being frustrated when he first showed an interest in the military, Steve Carr at last found a good way to help.

That was more than 10 years ago and the 73-year-old Bellingham resident isn’t ready to quit helping yet. Twice a month, he drives a van load of local veterans to Seattle for appointments at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The affable retired printer has even discovered there is sometimes a free lunch during the trips.

“It’s all volunteer work, but I do receive a free lunch at the mess hall once in a while,” he says with the wide smile he uses to tell stories. “Normally, we can get lunch at long as it doesn’t go over $6.”

After graduating from Bellingham High School in 1959, Carr became intrigued by the modern Air Force, which at the time was only 12 years old. But when he signed up for a hitch, he failed the physical. By the time he would have been cleared, he was well into his apprenticeship at age 18 as a printer at The Bellingham Herald.

At the time when hot metal, linotype machines and great skills were used to print newspapers, it was a fine opportunity to learn a family-wage skill.

“The Bellingham Herald was the only place I ever drew a paycheck,” says Carr, who retired at age 60 in 2001. “Forty-two years.”

And that doesn’t count his first opportunity for work in The Herald Building. He inserted the Sunday funnies on the Saturday night-to-Sunday morning shift when the ambitious teen was still a newspaper carrier.

Carr found himself learning new printing skills, since few papers were printed with hot metal beyond the advent of mixing computers and cold type in the 1970s. Indeed, his long career spanned a printing revolution.

“Not long after I retired, Charlene (his wife of 54 years) and I were out to dinner with some friends. I told them I felt I should be doing something useful for society,” Carr says. “They told me about a friend who drove for the DAV ( Disabled American Veterans). So I went and found out how I could help.”

Even though most World War II veterans are deceased, Carr says there are still many veterans of Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War to help. Hard as it might seem to believe, Gulf War veterans from the early 1990s battles are now entering middle age.

“I have great respect for our veterans,” Carr says. “This is just my small way of helping. It’s a real privilege.”

Carr, of course, is able to use the HOV lane, so the Seattle drives aren’t usually too stressful following their departure from Bellingham at 6:30 a.m.

“In the 1990s, my dad lived in a Seattle rest home and I went to see him every week,” Carr says. “I learned driving to Seattle is just all about patience, and that you can’t get too excited.”

Carr is well aware of the controversies involving the wait times many veterans have endured in order to begin receiving VA help.

“The VA has received a lot of bad press,” he says, “but 98 percent of the vets I’ve known are happy with their service. I’ve been around long enough that when I read a story, I sometimes take it with a grain of salt.”

Carr is one of 10 local volunteers who drive vans twice every four weeks, thus covering the 20 weekdays during those spans.

“It’s a great way to help our veterans,” he says. “Everybody is happy to have our van available.”

Steve and his wife have three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, with another on the way in April. He’s a member of the Antique Automobile Restorers Club of Bellingham, and is active in Northlake Community Church’s programs that provide groceries to needy people.

That way, he also helps pay back for any free lunches.