2018-09-06 / Front Page

Veteran on Wheels of Success

By Rona Mann


Eric Betz received a van from Work Vessels for Veterans whose mission is to equip veterans with the tools they need to start a business or pursue career education. (Photo by Jen Carter) Eric Betz received a van from Work Vessels for Veterans whose mission is to equip veterans with the tools they need to start a business or pursue career education. (Photo by Jen Carter) “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

No doubt you’ve heard that old saying before. It’s an enduring one because it more than rings true. Many can attest to its sentiments. People like Eric Betz of Newport, a veteran of the United States Air Force.

“Twelve years and seven months,” he proudly offers, “stationed in Japan, Utah, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guam and Arizona.”

What Betz doesn’t tell you, unless asked, is that he is 90 percent disabled, but since that doesn’t define him, he doesn’t readily mention it. What he does mention is what a tiny nonprofit with a big heart did to kick-start his civilian life and “teach him to fish.”


Betz encourages riders to draw pictures, sign their name or just doodle on the van window. (Photo by Jen Carter) Betz encourages riders to draw pictures, sign their name or just doodle on the van window. (Photo by Jen Carter) In November 2016, Work Vessels for Veterans gave Betz a Dodge Caravan because his former car needed repair, making transportation a formidable challenge. It enabled him to continue his studies in computer security at Roger Williams University, while also allowing him to start a part-time business ferrying people around Aquidneck Island.

“It has been a wonderful help to me and my family, as I have been able to have flexibility in my work schedule and attend university at the same time,” he said.

Although Betz has lived all over the world, he now considers Newport home, as this is where his work is and where his heart is. How the Lansing, Michigan native came to settle here is a story of both serendipity and determination, and is one he enjoys relating.

“I took German in high school back in Michigan. My teacher offered a class trip where we would actually travel to Germany for 10 days during summer vacation, so I signed up for it,” he said. “The first day we were there I loaned my jacket to a girl who was cold. She was on the same kind of trip with her teacher and members of her class, but her high school was Rogers High School.”

The “cold girl,” Siobhan Wheeler, rapidly warmed up to the attention from the kind Midwesterner and, before long, infatuation took priority over perfecting “Guten Morgen” and “Danke Schoen.” After a sorrowful parting, wondering when and if they would connect again, Betz saved up some money and got permission from his parents to fly to Newport.

“I saw Newport for the first time in 1998,” he said. “I thought it was beautiful then, and I still do. I remember walking down these streets with nice shops, glass blowers, wonderful beaches, and I especially remember Siobhan’s family taking us to dinner at Castle Hill. Wow.”

But as it often does, life intervened, the couple going their separate ways. Betz entered the Air Force and saw the world, but when he got out and was living in Utah, he used the internet to reconnect with the “cold girl” of his youth, “the one who got away,” he said, who he then married.

Today, the Betz family is still living in Newport, their daughter a seventh-generation member of Sibohan’s family. Sibohan’s father, Richard Wheeler, is well known in town as a much-decorated retired firefighter and in 2013 was featured in these pages after receiving the Rhode Island Lifesaving Medal for his part in the rescue and revival of a local heart attack victim.

Betz is more than making good use of the van. “In the last 13 months I have driven 50,000 miles, [taking] thousands of people anywhere… [including] a sea captain in charge of a $45 million yacht who had to get to New York,” he said. “Other companies will often turn down routes as being too far or not where they want to go, but I don’t like to disappoint people.

“A lot of my business is taking people to weddings in Newport, and I drive college students everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I went out and bought special markers you can use on windows. I encourage everyone to draw on the windows of my van while they’re with me, sign their name, draw pictures, whatever they want. The college students especially love it.

“Of all the places I go, I love driving people around Newport and showing them all the things I first fell in love with 20 years ago. I am proud of this city. It’s beautiful, and it’s great to be able to show it off to others.”

It’s the little things that have shaped Betz’s life. It’s what made him give a jacket to a cold girl, what made him determined to fly to Newport to see her again, what made him find her after all those years in the Air Force, and what keeps him driving, crayons at the ready, pointing out the city he has come to love.

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