Short and crusty, retired Navy Capt. Bob Silah was like a boiled lobster — hard shell on the outside, sweetness inside.
Though he had a 27-year Navy career that took him around the world, he was most proud of what he did once he hung up the uniform for good, friends and family say. For years, he was the driving force behind the Operation Helping Hand monthly dinner at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, which raised well more than $1 million to help nearly 1,000 wounded, ill and injured service members and their families.
On Monday, Silah, 80, passed away, leaving a big void in the local military and veteran community.
"He was a wonderful person that cared about people who put their lives at risk to defend our freedom," Gov. Rick Scott said when informed of Silah's death.
"Bob Silah is a true American hero," said Joe Battle, Haley's director. "His dedication and commitment to our patients and their families will live on through the work of Operation Helping Hand, but his loss will be felt by all who had the privilege to work with him. He was a dear friend."
Silah grew up in the small Wisconsin town of Fond du Lac, the youngest of eight children of Esther and Joseph Silah, immigrants from Lebanon.
"He was the only one of his siblings to go to college," said Silah's oldest son, Michael Silah, who heads the Aircraft Operations Center for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration at MacDill Air Force Base.
After graduating from Marquette University, then getting a job with the AC Delco company, Silah "left a good job to pursue a Naval career," his son said.
He was commissioned in the early 1960s and in 1968 he was shipped off to Vietnam, but not before he married Kathryn Rumph, a flight attendant for United Airlines, while he was taking a plane to San Francisco.
They dated for two months, then married, and two weeks later, Silah went to Vietnam. Wednesday was their 48th anniversary.
He never talked much about his service, the son said, other than working on aircraft carriers — mostly in support, but also some intelligence work.
After the typical nomadic military lifestyle, the Silah family — Bob and Kathryn, Michael and his younger brother Jason — came to Tampa in 1985. Silah was assigned to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base and it was here he established roots.
"Initially, it was just another assignment," Michael Silah said.
But the family liked the area and Silah made a commitment to stay put until his children graduated from high school. So he decided to retire in 1988.
Among other things, he became active with the local chapter of the Military Officers Association of America. But it was in 2004, with the wounded starting to pour into Haley from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that Silah made what would be his most enduring and proudest achievement.
It all started at a dinner with Steve Scott, Haley's chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation and polytrauma program. In a 2014 interview, Silah recalled a conversation he had with Scott.
" 'Some of the patients coming in have no money,' " Silah recalled Scott telling him. " 'Some of the parents were sleeping in cars, with no money for hotels. We don't know how to handle it.' "
Silah brought the idea to the Military Officers Association of America, and that led to the first Operation Helping Hand monthly dinner.
Aug. 18 marked the 148th consecutive monthly dinner, said Bill Farrow, like Silah, a veteran and the head of programs for Operation Helping Hand.
Over that time, the organization raised more than $1 million. The bulk of the money goes toward air fares to bring immediate family members of the patients to Tampa. Another big expenditure is for rental cars to allow those patients able to leave the hospital a chance to do so.
For his efforts, Silah was named to the inaugural class of the Florida Veterans' Hall of Fame in 2013.
"If not for Bob's hard work and dedication, we never would have been able to help so many people," said Farrow, adding that Silah was his best friend. "This loss is so big."
Knowing it will continue would make Silah proud, his son said.
"He was very proud of the fact that 97-plus percent of the money raised went directly to help the patients," he said. "The mission will continue until the need ends, not because of my father's death."
Silah leaves behind a wife, two sons and two grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Blount & Curry Funeral Home, 3207 W Bearss Ave, Tampa. The funeral Mass will be 2 p.m. Monday at St. Paul Catholic Church, 12708 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, with a reception to follow in the Family Center.
Burial will be at Florida National Cemetery, Bushnell.
• • •
The Department of Defense announced the deaths of two soldiers supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel.
Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson, 28, of Irvine, Calif., died Aug. 23 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, of injuries from an improvised explosive device that detonated near his patrol. The incident is under investigation.
Thompson was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
Staff Sgt. Christopher A. Wilbur, 36, of Granite City, Illinois, died Aug. 12 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from a non-combat-related injury. The incident is under investigation.
Wilbur was assigned to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, in Fort Carson, Colorado.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 23 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 18 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State.
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman