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Donated boat for wounded veterans now center of battle

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Published:   |   Updated: December 7, 2013 at 03:45 PM

A decade ago, Beverly Young took a 32-ounce Budweiser bottle and poured beer on a boat named in her honor that was specially outfitted for disabled veterans.

“This Bud’s for you,” she shouted at the christening ceremony for the Miss Beverly as her husband, Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, looked on.

The 24-foot Crestliner pontoon boat is now the center of a pitched battle between a retired Special Forces colonel who set up his own special operation to restore the decaying vessel, and MacDill Air Force Base, which wants to maintain ownership.

Today, there will be a re-christening, with Beverly Young, now a widow, once again wielding a bottle.

But that may only be a temporary truce.

The retired colonel wants to the boat returned to the organization that donated it. And the colonel who runs the base says Air Force rules prohibit that.

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In 2003, Anheuser-Busch made a $100,000 grant to the Paralyzed Veterans of America headquarters in Washington, D.C. The Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the PVA asked for funds to purchase a boat outfitted for wounded veterans, according to Ben Ritter, a former government relations director for the Florida Gulf Coast PVA.

The national office used some of the grant money to buy a 24-foot pontoon boat from Crestliner, which was supposed to be converted to handle three wheelchair-bound passengers. The boat, which would become affectionately known as the Miss Bev, was named after Bev Young because of the work she does on behalf of wounded veterans.

When the boat arrived, it hadn’t been converted to handle wheelchairs so the local PVA chapter paid for that work, then turned the boat over to MacDill so disabled veterans could fish and enjoy being on the water.

But the relationship grew uneasy.

Base security provisions limited access to the boat. The Paralyzed Veterans of America group grew disenchanted with limitations on who could use the boat and the $110 user fee levied on wounded veterans who were not PVA members, according to Ritter.

And then there were was Mother Nature.

The relentless sun and salt ate away at the boat so badly it was eventually deemed unseaworthy, sitting idle in the MacDill marina as the elements ate away at her.

That might have been the end of the story if not for a cantankerous retired special forces colonel who works at the base and mounted a special operation of his own to restore the Miss Bev.

“The base never maintained it and it took on water,’’ said Alan Krezeczowski, an intense retired Special Forces colonel who now works at U.S. Special Operations Command and is an associate member of the local PVA. “There were pinhole leaks through the pontoons. Welds were cracked and broken. I told the base it was not safe to use anymore.”

Officials from the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the host unit at MacDill, declined comment for this story.

Fast forward until June, when the boat was ruled unseaworthy by the base.

“I got interested in the boat again,” says Krezeczowski, who had recently retired. He teamed up with a couple of paralyzed veterans - Ben Ritter and Phil Fass - to find out what it would take to restore the Miss Bev.

Krezeczowski convinced MacDill officials to allow him to take the boat out for an assessment.

But once on the water, he and Fass decided to call an audible.

“Once we got it out, Phil and I said, ‘Screw it,” says Krezeczowski. “We’ll fix it. We had no funding ,no money, nothing. The base might say something different, but if they had money, they should have fixed it.”

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Krezeczowski is not a man who enjoys hearing the word “no.”

He was an Army Ranger, then a member of the 11th Special Forces Group. He became a reserve officer in 1987, eventually winding up at U.S. Special Operations Command Central as a reservist. He retired in 2005 as a colonel but was asked to come back to do overseas operations in the Balkans.

In 2006, when he got back from the Balkans for the second time, he learned he had a form of prostate cancer.

He eventually became a liaison with the FBI at U.S. Special Operations Command. In 2009, he was called again, this time to Pakistan. But the cancer came back. Krezeczowski returned to Tampa, where he received chemotherapy at the Moffitt Cancer Center. He now serves as a civilian at Socom on the Afghanistan Operational Planning Team.

When Krezeczowski decided to take on the task of getting the boat rebuilt, he and Fass reached out to the local shipbuilding community for help. The response, he said, was immediate and overwhelming.

Sea Hawk Paints pitched in with thousands of dollars worth of paint and materials. Don’s Boat Salvage donated the aluminum and pedestals for the seats. Fiber-Lay provided fiberglass paint and technical expertise. Aqua-Dyne Boats opened up its shop and provided personnel to help rebuild the Miss Bev.

“We stripped her down to the ribs, and then not having anyone to do welding, went to Nickolas Manufacturing, and the owner said, ‘If it’s for wounded guys, I will weld-repair the boat,’” Krezeczowski said

The deck was rotted and the team needed new plywood but had no money. They reached out to Dixie Plywood and the owner gave Krezeczowski her credit card and said, ‘Buy all the wood you want.’”

On Sept. 29, as promised, Krezeczowski brought the boat back to MacDill. Instead of just being taken out for an assessment, it was almost completely restored.

Krezeczowski estimates the restoration involved $12,000 to $17,000 in donated material and labor.

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On Nov. 1, another pontoon boat for disabled veterans, the Bay Warrior, was christened at MacDill. On Nov. 25, MacDill base commander Col. Scott DeThomas wrote a letter to Davis Celestine, president of the PVA Florida Gulf Coast chapter, denying the request to return the Miss Bev to the group.

A legal review found that because the boat had been donated to an Air Force base, DeThomas had to operate under Air Force rules, which only allow non-governmental organizations like the PVA to “acquire these types of resources via a sales event or through a sealed bid process,” DeThomas wrote. “Since ownership rights were relinquished at the time the donation was received, the asset cannot be released directly to the Paralyzed Veterans of America.”

That response did not sit well with Krezeczowski or Celestine. Celestine, though, says he is still hoping to eventually get better access to the base for those who want to use the Miss Bev, a wider range of those allowed to use it and a reduction in the price to use the boat.

For her part, Beverly Young, who inspired the boat’s name,says she is looking forward to the rechristening, scheduled for noon at I.C. Sharks Marina in St. Petersburg.

“I support anything that will help the wounded soldier,” says Young, who is planning on bringing along Eric Kallal, a Navy corpsman who was blinded in 2001 during a training mission getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. “Anything that makes their lives brighter, easier and less stressful, I am game.”

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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