When Walt Lamerton first mentioned the idea of bringing a USO facility to Tampa International Airport, “everyone looked at me like I was nuts,” says the 56-year-old Air Force veteran.
That was three years ago.
Fast forward to the present.
USO Tampa Bay, the organization Lamerton created, has a 1,134-square-foot USO center at the airport, which will celebrate its first anniversary Sept. 6. Nearly a half-million dollars in cash and in-kind donations was raised. About 300 volunteers have provided food and temporary shelter to about 12,000 traveling service members and their families and more than a dozen Families of the Fallen support services for families whose loved ones died while in uniform. A 2,000-square-foot USO day room is scheduled for a soft opening Sept. 25 in the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
A 12-month partnership was established with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which the team will donate money, and has provided suites for every home game for active duty military members. A similar agreement is being worked out with the Ligthning. The USO Warrior and Family Care program is working to build homes for homeless women veterans. And a USO facility is being planned for Orlando International Airport.
So no, Lamerton wasn’t nuts.
And to prove he still isn’t nuts, on Aug. 2 he stepped down as chairman of the USO Tampa Bay board of directors.
Before he set sail into the proverbial sunset, I wanted to know why.
“To be honest, I am tired,” he tells me, pausing over the phone for a moment to grab a fast food salad. “I have worked on this thing for three years for a minimum of 40 hours a week, some weeks 60 or 70 hours, plus running a business (Lamerton and his wife Susan are realtors in Pasco County). I just felt like it was time to turn the reins over to the group we have.”
Lamerton, a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force, says the biggest challenge in bringing a USO to Tampa airport was the uniqueness of the concept.
“USO national had not chartered a new USO in over 20 years,” he says. “There was no corporate knowledge of bringing someone on board and letting a local board handle it. And Tampa International never had a USO, so it was new on both sides of it. That was a little bit of a challenge.”
But not enough to stop Lamerton.
They key, he says, was getting the right people on board. In Tampa, that meant Gigi Reuchel, the airport’s counsel.
“After a few months, she called me back and said, ‘I’m an Air Force brat,’ says Lamerton, “‘I am behind whatever you do all the way. Let’s get going.’”
Reuchel reached out to former airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan and Lamerton credits both for making his dream come true.
But just because Lamerton is stepping down doesn’t mean he is stepping away.
He’s still working on the Orlando proposition. And the housing for the homeless. And the deals with the sports teams. And he is about to launch a “No Dough Dinner’ program at MacDill to feed service members and their families on the night before payday.
Thursday night, the board voted to name Jim “Moe” Moyer, a Coast Guard veteran and president of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle club, as Lamerton’s successor.
Hey Moe, best of luck. You’ve got big shoes to fill.
Last week, I wrote about Extortion 17, the Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Wardak Province two years ago, the biggest single disaster in the war and the worst in the history of U.S. Special Operations Command. All told, 38 died, including 30 U.S. service members. Among those killed were 22 members of the Navy Special Warfare community, including 17 SEALs.
To honor the two-year anniversary of that shoot-down on Aug. 6, the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim opened registration for its 4th Annual cross-bay swim to raise funds for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The foundation is one of the nation’s best charities, providing “immediate and ongoing support and assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and their families.”
Registration for the Jan. 19 swim filled up in five hours, with 135 swimmers and 25 on a waiting list, according to Kurt Ott, the race coordinator. The wait list is capped and no more names are being taken.
Last year, organizers raised more than $250,000 and this year they hope to raise more than $300,000, said Ott.
Though the swim slots are filled, there are still ways to help.
This year, organizers introduced the “Virtual Frogman. Swim a 5k or other distance on your own in any pool, lake or ocean (or register for any open water swim event) and fund raise for the Foundation.”
Ott said the organization is also looking for kayakers who can escort swimmers.
To learn more, go to tampabayfrogman.com
The Pentagon announced the death of one soldier last week in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Spc. Nickolas S. Welch, 26, of Mill City, Ore., died Aug. 6, in Bethesda, Md., of injuries sustained July 23, when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device in Soltan Kheyl, Wardak Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga. There have now been 2,245 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.