In less than 30 minutes on a sunny Wednesday morning, three Vietnam War veterans, armed only with handtrucks, made off with more than 2,000 items of clothing in 45 boxes from a warehouse at Tampa International Airport.
But it wasn’t a heist.
The men, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 787, were there to collect the boxes so that the items inside — clothing left behind at the airport — will be distributed to homeless veterans.
The items started being accumulated last November and had been awaiting a periodic auction that is akin to Storage Wars meets Airport, where people came in and bid on a collection of boxes, hoping to find a mink coat among the denim jackets, down vests, leather belts and other mundane frockery forgotten in the hubbub of herding through the serpentine security lines or in bathrooms or on the trams.
But in January, a new law called the “Clothe a Homeless Hero Act” went into effect. The law urges the Transportation Safety Administration to “make every reasonable effort” to ensure that the left-behind clothing finds its way to homeless veterans.
For years, the airport had an agreement with TSA allowing it to sell the clothing through the auctions, raising somewhere between $600 and $800 per 20-box loads, according to Mitch Thrower III, manager of administration for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The money, he said, would go into the airport’s general fund.
Earlier this year, the TSA sent a letter to the airport, “seeking your voluntary cooperation with this legislative mandate” by providing the clothing to “the Department of Veterans Affairs or other local charity for distribution to homeless or needy veterans and veteran families.”
The airport, said Thrower, was happy to comply.
But finding the right organization to pick up the boxes and ensure the clothing finds its intended recipients wasn’t easy, said Thrower. The logistics were too challenging for the VA and Hillsborough County’s veterans organization, he said.
So the clothes continued to sit at the warehouse as Thrower, whose father served in Vietnam and grandfather was killed in WWII, sought out a way to live up to the new law.
About a week ago, Ben Ritter, government relations director for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, became aware that the clothes were still in the warehouse. He began sending an email around to local veteran service groups, informing them of the Clothe a Homeless Hero Act.
“It would be great if local Tampa Bay organizations that assist homeless veterans could tap in to this new program,” he wrote.
A copy of the email was sent to The Tribune, which contacted the airport. Meanwhile, Ritter reached out to Navy veteran Mike O’Dell, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 787.
O’Dell, a former Fisher House volunteer of the year, reached out to the Tribune, which linked him up with Thrower. A few days later, he and two other veterans showed up at the airport warehouse in a battered white Ford Bronco II pulling an equally battered white 12-foot trailer.
There, he and Vietnam War Army veterans Bryan O’Reilly and Glayron Faries wheeled the boxes out of the warehouse and loaded them onto the trailer.
The boxes represented all the clothing left behind at the airport since last November, not just the items forgotten at the security lines as the law requests, said Thrower. All told, about 15,000 items are left behind at the airport every year, about 25 to 30 percent of which are returned to their owners.
“We figured we might as well just give all the clothes so that they go to the veterans,” he said.
For now, the clothing will remain in the Vietnam Veterans of America warehouse on Busch Boulevard near Nebraska Avenue, said O’Dell, who is looking for groups that will give the clothing directly to homeless veterans, regardless of when they served.
“There are hundreds of veterans out there on the streets,” said O’Dell.
For more information, contact O’Dell at 603-234-3363.