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Tampa factory makes second chances for veterans

TAMPA — Spencher Field's spiral to homelessness began about a year ago when a North Carolina state trooper stopped the trucker for speeding.

Field didn't pay the ticket, lost his license and then his job.

As an Army veteran living shelter to shelter, drinking more than he knew he should, Field was reluctant to ask the Department of Veterans Affairs or anyone else for a hand.

But now, the road back for Field may start with a birdhouse in John Campbell's noisy woodworking shop.

Campbell, a retired Army Ranger who worked searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, recently launched a nonprofit shop in Tampa to train disabled and unemployed veterans for re-entry into the labor force.

Campbell, 48, retired in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel from the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

He said he has staked his savings, his reputation, his future on Vetmade Industries Inc., where about 10 veterans currently work saws and drills to make everything from birdhouses to lawn furniture.

Campbell pays the veterans $10 an hour and tries to sell their wares.

While they toil ostensibly at woodworking, Campbell said the bigger goal is providing a lift in confidence and self-esteem for veterans hit hard by life.

"There's something zen about it," Campbell said. "Wood is a natural product. There's something primeval in its smell. Nobody at Dow Chemical loves the smell of the job."

Veterans like Field with little experience in woodworking say the job gives them a measure of respect they lacked on the unemployment line.

"You take pride in what you do," said Field, 50, who is no longer homeless and expects to get his trucking license back soon. "And it will be a job reference. That's something. Being on the streets, what are you going to tell a man? I hung out on the corner eight hours a day panhandling?"

"This job," he said, "isn't about wood. It's about a second chance."

So far, Campbell hasn't been able to attract any seed money, though he said he's applied for grants, including $60,000 from the McCormick Foundation in Chicago.

Campbell said he's poured $150,000 of his savings into the business so far and is struggling to make payroll.

Campbell said he always enjoyed woodworking and kept his hand in it as a hobby while traveling base to base during 27 years in the Army, including a 2003 stint in Iraq.

He said that like many veterans, he struggled with his transition to civilian life.

Campbell said he missed the action of the military. He missed the camaraderie, the purpose, the sense of being part of something larger than yourself.

"In a way, Vetmade is my therapy, too," he said.

Campbell started the business six months ago with unsteady steps, as it turned out. His first project was a veteran with drug and alcohol issues. Soon, Campbell said, the man was spending his salary on booze.

He gave the veteran a second chance. The veteran failed. Campbell said he felt like he failed, too.

"I almost gave up," he said. "It was depressing."

But other veterans followed. He put an ad on craigslist. He staked out job banks.

"He's basically mortgaged his whole life to get this going," said Chris Krimitsos, a friend in the business community. "There is no ulterior motive. It's all about the veterans."

Some of the veterans working at Campbell's Cypress Street shop haven't worked with wood since high school.

Gene Wotring, 61, is a former Marine who saw combat in Vietnam.

Wotring said he gets counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA. He lost a job selling vacation properties in the economic downturn. Wotring said working with fellow veterans provides a comfort level he doesn't get with an ordinary job. The pressure isn't as great.

"We're all looking out for each other," he said. "It's a home base. And getting back to work is as effective a therapy as anything."

Walter Stadler, 60, is an unemployed pharmacy technician and Marine veteran who served in Vietnam and lives in a Tampa shelter. He said all the veterans at the shop have issues. One of his is post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's therapeutic for all these guys," Stadler said. "I go home at night and feel like I accomplished something. I rest easier. Our war is over. The shooting part, anyway."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306

Tampa factory makes second chances for veterans 02/16/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 11:03am]

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