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Altman: Charity event produces several ‘cigar moments’

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Published:   |   Updated: November 18, 2013 at 06:42 AM

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

Those were the infamous words of John “Hannibal” Smith, leader of the factious ODA from the “A-Team” television show. Played by George Peppard, Hannibal would light up a cigar and utter his catch phrase at the end of each episode, when the team overcame all for a happy ending.

I thought of that phrase a couple of times over the past week.

Like Saturday at Shooters World on East Fletcher Avenue in Tampa.

Only this involved real Green Berets who were on real A-Teams. As well as some other commando and ex-commando types, about 20 in all, who came out in support of Shooting with Operator, a military-community “fusion” event that raises money for charity and cross-cultural awareness.

There were 12 teams of four who paid $2,000 each for the chance to shoot with and learn from those who did it for a living. They fired a range of weapons, including an AK-47, an Uzi, M4s and several kinds of shotguns and handguns.

“This was very successful,” said Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret who created the event, who was finally having a Hannibal cigar moment after the shooting, about 30,000 rounds worth, ceased.

Including raffle items, the event raised about $25,000 for the Green Beret Foundation, the Foundation for Exceptional Warriors and Support the Troops.

There was also a Hannibal cigar moment for Mike Jernigan, who was blinded on Aug. 22, 2004 when his Humvee blew up in Iraq. Jernigan since graduated from St. Petersburg College and helped found the Paws for Patriots program at Southeastern Guide Dogs, which provides fully trained service dogs to the wounded and blind. Jernigan’s Hannibal cigar moment came when he received a giant check for $11,380 — money raised by the raffle of a 2001 Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle. The Sarasota-based Patterson Foundation matched that, meaning Southeastern Guide Dogs received $22,760, much-needed funds considering that each dog, which is given out for free, is worth about $65,000 when you factor in lifetime training.

Then there was Fran Harrison. The 71-year-old long-time veteran community volunteer had her own Hannibal cigar moment Saturday.

She won the Harley.

She and her husband, Navy veteran John Harrison, also 71, “needed a new one, so this is very exciting,” she said after being handed the keys to the bike by Neil, at an after party at Rob Elder’s Jaguar of Tampa, one of the main event sponsors.

Johnny Heffernan, owner of Hatricks Restaurant in downtown Tampa and a first-time sponsor of the event, had his several Hannibal cigar moments.

“This is a great way to support those who risk their lives for us,” said Heffernan, an avid hunter, before the shooting started.

“That was really cool,” he said after getting to shoot weapons he never had before.

****

The first time I thought about Hannibal cigar moments last week was Nov. 10, when I caught up with Mike O’Dell at the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum Veterans Day ceremony.

O’Dell, who was receiving a Hillsborough Veterans Council award for the work he does on behalf of homeless veterans, filled me in on the latest news about efforts to get clothing left behind at airports into the hands of homeless veterans.

Apparently, a plan cooked up in Tampa is starting to go national.

But like an episode of the “A-Team,” it all began with a rocky start.

In August, I got an email from Ben Ritter, an advocate for disabled veterans, talking about a little-known law called the “Clothe A Homeless Hero Act.” The law called upon the Transportation Safety Administration to find a way to get clothing left behind at its checkpoints to homeless and needy veterans.

Though the bill became law in January, there had been no mechanism set up for Tampa International Airport to donate the clothing, hence Ritter’s email to me and local veterans advocates.

I made a few calls, and O’Dell, president of Chapter 787 of the Vietnam Veterans of America agreed to step up. We reached out to the airport and in late August, O’Dell and a few others wound up at an airport warehouse, hauling out 45 boxes containing about 2,000 items of clothing.

The operation was so successful that O’Dell says he received a phone call from the TSA at Logan Airport in Boston seeing how officials there could set up a similar system.

“I have a New Hampshire cell phone number and that’s how Logan wound up calling me,” he said.

Skip Hochreich, the Massachusetts chapter president, said that while Logan officials have been receptive, an initial foray to the airport did not turn up any usable items. But Hochreich says his team will try again.

The concept gained more momentum at the VVA’s conference in Jacksonville, O’Dell said.

“At our last board meeting, the national president made everyone aware of the efforts,” said Ben Humphries, president of the Florida Council of the VVA. “He encouraged chapters to get involved with their local airports.”

John Rowan, the organization’s national president, said the 70,000-member organization would “certainly like to be involved” in getting local the local TSAs to set up a program similar to what O’Dell has with TIA.

Some chapters are better able than others to handle such a program, he said.

“We are really interested in helping out,” he said.’

For O’Dell, it’s a Hannibal cigar moment.

“I think it is fantastic,” he said. “It makes me very proud they started with us.”

I love it when a plan comes together.

****

The Pentagon reported the death of a Florida-based soldier in Afghanistan last week.

Staff Sgt. Richard L. Vazquez, 28, of Seguin, Texas, died Nov. 13, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device while on dismounted patrol in Panjwai, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Eglin Air Force Base, Fla

There have now been 2,278 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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