GILLETTE, Wyo. — When a veteran speaks, Duffy Jenniges listens.
As a volunteer van driver for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he offers his time and his assurance to veterans that they aren’t alone.
“I like to think that my main priority is just listening to them. If they want to vent, let them vent. If they want to visit, let them visit,” Jenniges said. “That’s the best part of life, just being able to be a listener.”
Jenniges is retired from the BNSF Railway and has spent the better part of his retirement taking veterans where they need to go.
“He’s an awesome person,” said Amy Kooran, a nurse at Gillette’s Veterans Affairs clinic. “He will do anything for a vet.”
Peggy Raine, a medical support assistant at the clinic, said Jenniges is the clinic’s go-to driver.
“He’s very reliable. He’s always there,” she said. “They (veterans) know too that they can count on him.”
He drives men and women, the young and the old, the talkative and the quiet. He feels a strong sense of responsibility toward veterans, no matter who happens to be riding shotgun.
“My job is to make sure they’re not alone and to make sure you let them know that they’re not alone and you’re going to be there for them,” he said.
That mentality has served him well in his years of driving. He has gained friends and camaraderie.
But finding friendship wasn’t his main goal. Jenniges, 67, is a Vietnam veteran and he wanted to make his rightful contribution.
“If I get into a position where I can’t advocate for myself, I better pay it forward now. That’s basically what I’m doing. Just paying it forward.”
Raine said that Jenniges can get a call in the morning and be on the road with the veteran in an hour.
“He gives and gives and gives,” she said. “He is reliable and our veterans are so lucky to have him on their side.”
Jenniges has done more than pay it forward. He has pushed the envelope for change and has advocated for veterans’ rights. When he began driving about seven years ago, the only van in Gillette was designated for trips to Sheridan. If veterans needed to travel elsewhere for a medical appointment in the area, they had to ride to Sheridan and continue on from there, no matter how inconvenient.
“Before, if a patient had an appointment in Casper, I would have to take him from here up to Sheridan. He’d have to stay overnight at the hospital in Sheridan, probably, and then go down with the Casper van the next day,” Jenniges said.
“If he (could) catch the Casper van down that day, then he’d have to stay overnight in Casper (and then) catch the Casper van back to Sheridan,” he said. “Then we’d have to drive up the next day and pick him up there.”
Jenniges advocated for the development of a more efficient system.
Now, as long as the van isn’t needed for a ride to Sheridan, Jenniges can take them where they need to go without the detour. He has driven veterans to Casper, Rapid City, Cheyenne, and even Denver, among other places.
The new system offers a smoother experience for riders.
“We make it easier on the veteran,” he said.
It is one step toward veterans reaping the benefits of their service without a struggle, and that, ultimately, is the core of Jenniges’ philosophy and plight.