A Jasper veteran, attempting to walk nearly 100 miles from Jasper to Huntsville to keep an appointment with the Veterans Administration (VA) on Wednesday caught a break - and a ride - when a Walker County deputy spotted him. What ensued next was coordination across four sheriff's offices to get the Walker County man to his appointment on Wednesday and back home Thursday. In addition, a Facebook post by the Morgan County Sheriff's Office has triggered an outpouring of support.
Walker County Sgt. Kevin Emberg was dispatched around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to check out a report of a man walking down Bolodo Road in Jasper. The caller suspected the man may have been an elderly man who'd been reported missing. Emberg found Gulf War veteran Gerald David Baldwin on Highway 69, walking toward Cullman County. Emberg said he quickly determined Baldwin was not the missing man and asked him where he was going.
"He told me he was a disabled veteran and he was walking to an appointment he couldn't miss at the VA hospital in Huntsville," said Emberg. "I could tell he wasn't going to make it because he was walking with a bottle of oxygen and he'd had another bottle of oxygen he'd already used up." Baldwin had already walked seven miles from his home.
"He was struggling when I came across him," said Emberg. "He would not have made it."
It was not the first time Baldwin had walked to a doctor's appointment, Emberg said. He discovered the veteran had walked 16 miles roundtrip to get to appointments at the clinic in Jasper, and up to 20 miles roundtrip when he lived even further from the clinic. On Wednesday, though, the Army veteran with 22 years of service needed to get to Huntsville, or face the possibility of losing some of his benefits.
"I told him I could take him at least as far as Dodge City," said Emberg. Before reaching the county line, however, the sergeant met up with Deputy Chris Doerr, who took over transporting Baldwin. Emberg credits the deputy with the idea of contacting the Cullman County Sheriff's Office to see if they could assist.
Cullman County Deputy Kolby Smith met the Walker County deputy and took Baldwin to Morgan County. There he was transferred to a Madison County deputy who got him to his appointment.
The four departments reversed the route the next day, getting Baldwin back home.
The Morgan County Sheriff's office posted about the transport on its Facebook page, where it garnered a lot of attention and support for the veteran.
Morgan County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Mike Swafford noted, "We do things like this all the time, but we've never seen a reaction like this." The proximity of the event to Veterans Day likely increased the responses, he said.
"We were just honored to do it," said Swafford. "The public does not realize that we work together behind the scenes all the time, which makes things like this possible."
Emberg also noted that the cross-agency cooperation is nothing new but the involvement of all the departments, and their willingness to help, was special. "There's been times when we've given people rides to the county line before, but I've never had four agencies work together like we did Wednesday and Thursday."
Cullman Sheriff Matt Gentry said, "It is always an honor to serve and assist our veterans. We have many deputies that are veterans and also many of the family members of our deputies are veterans. As deputy sheriffs, it is our mission to serve all citizens, but it is even more fulfilling when you can assist a veteran who selflessly served for each one of us. I am always proud of how our deputies are willing to go above and beyond their normal duties to make this world a better place."
Now the focus is on how to help Baldwin find reliable transportation and ensure he's connected to services for veterans. The Morgan County Sheriff's Office updated its Facebook post to note, "Over 5 million people have seen this and many have offered to help this Veteran. We are in contact with him today to see how he wants to handle the outpouring of support!"