On Jan. 18, 2012, the USO Board of Governors did something it hadn’t done in 20 years: it voted to grant a charter to a new USO.
The doors to the new USO Tampa Bay center have been open since September, and just last week, the man who made it all happen was honored by the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning as the 32nd Lightning Community Hero of 2013.
Tampa Bay Lightning player Nate Thompson, left, and Lightning Chief Operating Officer Steve Griggs, right, present a $50,000 check to Walter Lamerton and Brenda Schwarzkopf, the wife of the late General Norman Schwarzkopf. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning
USO Tampa Bay CEO Walter Lamerton – a retired Air Force senior master sergeant from Trinity, Fla. – was presented with a $50,000 check from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program. How much does he care about the USO? He donated the entire check back the USO of Tampa Bay.
Lamerton – a jet engine mechanic when he served – didn’t realize at first that there wasn’t a USO at the Tampa Bay International Airport.
“Like many others in this community, I would see all of the 300,000 military personnel going through the airport every year, but I must have just assumed there was a USO,” he said.
When he realized there was no place for the traveling troops to decompress, he launched an initiative to build a USO. In two years, Lamerton secured funding, attracted 550 volunteers and formed local versions of what he calls a “blue collar” board of directors, an advisory board and committees.
“I was told, ‘This has been tried before,’” Lamerton said. “And I simply responded with, ‘I don’t know anything about that. All I know is what’s needed now.’”
The stars aligned when CEO Joe Lopano took over at Tampa Bay International Airport after leaving an executive role at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport – where the USO has an impactful presence – and Gen. (Ret.) Richard B. Myers took over as chairman of the board for the USO worldwide.
“It was at that moment, when the new CEO came in to town and Gen. Myers announced that he would be the new chairman, that I knew it could happen,” Lamerton said. “I had served under Gen. Myers, so I called him up to congratulate him and at the same time ask for his help.”
Myers facilitated conversations between Lamerton and the Tampa Bay airport’s executive committee. Lamerton submitted a financial plan, and approvals from the USO’s Board of Directors and the airport came in nearly simultaneously.
“Walter Lamerton was a driving force behind submitting this ultimately successful proposal to the USO Board of Governors,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, before Congress last May. “He worked closely with volunteers throughout the Tampa Bay area and effectively conveyed their message of support for our service members and their families to both the local community and to the USO Board of Governors, under a compact timeframe.
“Mr. Lamerton’s leadership and attention to detail were critical in the effort to bring the USO Center to Tampa. As a result, many of our nation’s service members and their families will directly benefit from his efforts for years to come.”
— Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer