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Tampa International Airport agrees to add USO center

Traveling through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport several years ago, then Army officer Brian Butler remembers his shoulders slumping once he learned that his flight had been delayed several hours.

He wanted nothing more than a quiet place to rest and possibly nap while he waited out the weather delay. Luckily, there was a place at the airport just for him.

"I remember seeing the USO sign, and I went in," he said. "It was like I could just go there and relax with all of my bags."

Now retired from the Army and president of a public relations firm, Butler is part of a campaign to create a USO center at Tampa International Airport to provide the same resources to others.

"How could I not be involved?" he said. "I spent 22 years in the Army, and I've been in USOs all over the country and some overseas. I know just how important they are to traveling service members and their families."

The USO may be best known for images of Bob Hope performing for troops at dusty bases. Though entertaining service members is still part of the organization's mission, its programs include everything from care packages sent overseas to support for the wounded who return home.

USO airport centers offer free snacks, cable TV, plush reclining chairs and telephones to make free calls. They are staffed by volunteers especially trained to address the unique needs of the military community.

"The volunteers with the USO are always there with a smile, always there with a cup of coffee or a cup of orange juice to just help out," said Butler, who lives in Lutz.

Many airports have a USO, including Jacksonville and Pensacola in Florida. But there was nothing in the Tampa Bay area. That troubled Air Force veteran Walter Lamerton, now retired and operating a real estate agency in Pasco County.

Lamerton, whose father and father-in-law were Marines, grew up at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His wife, Susan, was born at Camp Pendleton in California.

He sees the Tampa USO as an opportunity to give back to the military community some of what his family received over the years.

Lamerton launched the Project Tampa campaign in October and began lobbying the USO Board of Governors to approve a site here. At the same time, he connected with Tampa airport officials who agreed to donate space.

The airport hasn't yet decided where the USO center will be or how big it will be. Officials have confirmed, however, that it will be part of a $20 million renovation of the main terminal. The goal is for the USO to be included in the first phase of construction, scheduled for completion by next summer's Republican National Convention.

Lamerton envisions the Tampa USO as a registered nonprofit center staffed by three-full time employees and 200 to 400 volunteers. It would be open up to 19 hours a day, seven days a week. The proposed budget is about $315,000 a year, half of which is salaries.

Most USOs are supported entirely by their local communities and receive no government funding. That creates a short timeline for Lamerton and the folks behind Project Tampa to ensure they have the funding and volunteer force in place.

He is making the rounds to political and community organizations and businesses, talking about the initiative and asking for support.

Lamerton and a group of volunteers spent Labor Day weekend at the airport informally surveying travelers about the need for a USO. There only a few hours each day, they spoke to more than 300 traveling service members and families, he said.

"The bulk was transitioning to Tampa to see their family or maybe seeing their family off," Lamerton said. "It was very, very enlightening."

The volunteers were surprised to learn that most of the service members were not stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.

That Saturday, they ran into a young sergeant who had arrived at MacDill from Afghanistan and then went to TIA to catch a flight home. Somewhere in the process, he lost his wallet.

By the time Project Tampa volunteers found the stranded service member, he had spent the night at the airport as his family traveled to pick him up.

If there had been a USO center, Lamerton said, the service member would likely have been put up in a hotel free of charge. The volunteers would probably have tried to get the soldier an emergency ID so he could board a flight home.

Instead, all the Project Tampa representatives could do was buy him lunch at T.G.I. Friday's and give him a few dollars from their own pockets to tide him over until his family arrived.

"He was trying to get by on a PowerBar," Lamerton said.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

FAST FACTS

The center

To learn more about efforts to bring a USO center to Tampa International Airport, visit projecttampa.org.

Tampa International Airport agrees to add USO center 09/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:31am]
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