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Wheelchair road trip to honor veterans

Robert "The Rolling Dutchman" Van Branken pulls his electric wheelchair and travel trailer into camp at Itasca State Park Monday. Van Branken started Tuesday on his 2,000-plus mile journey south following secondary routes and byways to his destination at the Gulf of Mexico, a trip to thank veterans for their service. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

On Memorial Day morning Robert "The Rolling Dutchman" Van Branken dipped the back tires of his electric wheelchair in the Headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.

In six or seven months he intends to undertake a similar ritual with his front tires in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Wheels to pavement, rain or shine, June 1. This whole journey is to say thanks to any veteran I see," Van Branken said.

He said Monday that the significance of Memorial Day - to remember deceased veterans - was important as a starting date. But, "After today, every day will be Veterans Day," he said of his goal in honoring those who served and are serving. "I'll try to stop by every veteran memorial, Legion hall, veterans' hospitals."

As of Tuesday afternoon, he had reached Park Rapids from a 10 a.m. start at Itasca. He said he had already received a wonderful reception at a veterans' memorial park in the city, along with the gift of free electricity to charge up his wheelchair batteries.

Van Branken, 52, is the son of William and Flora Van Branken of Bemidji. He lives in St. Louis Park, Minn., and is a retired airline ground service crew chief. He lost his left leg above the knee in a November 2006 automobile accident.

"If you ask anybody who knows me, I'm not really handicapped," he said, as he agilely squatted at his Itasca campsite Monday to hook the travel trailer containing his camping gear to his Hurricane power chair.

"I'm going green," he said, pointing out that his wheelchair travels at 9 mph with no emissions.

The chair is powered by 12-volt batteries that give him about 10 hours of power and are rechargeable each night.

In 2007, Van Branken made his first cross-country wheelchair trip to raise funds for veterans with disabilities by traveling from Minneapolis to New York City.

"I've come across disabled veterans and I understand mobility issues," he said.

For this trip, and to update his website journal, he is working with a long-distance partner, Vicki Vail, who will keep in contact from her computer in Elk River, Minn. She will also contact law enforcement officials as Van Branken travels south to apprise them of his whereabouts and daily destination plans.

He said he wouldn't travel at night, although his wheelchair has a headlight and the trailer is equipped with running lights and an orange triangle hazard sign.

"I also have a CB radio, and I have roadside wheelchair assistance through the Pride Mobility Corporation," he said.

Van Branken said he would stay mostly at campgrounds, but he would welcome contact from any host families or organizations that would care to give him a night's berth.

A cross hangs from his wheelchair canopy frame, and he said he plans to attend church every Sunday wherever he finds himself.

"It's going to be a spiritual journey," he said. "That's my safety net - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

Van Branken's website is at