One Veteran’s Enduring Mission

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TAMPA — It is another busy morning for Thomas Brown as he prepares to drive to Ruskin to find one more veteran in need.

There is work to parcel out and logistics to coordinate. As a homeless coordinator for Tampa Crossroads, a local non-profit, Brown’s job is to help veterans in Hillsborough County who are living without permanent shelter.

It is a job he relishes. But for Brown, a month shy of his 64th birthday, there is always more to do.

There are fund raisers to attend and numerous functions with the Patriot Guard Riders, a group formed to protect veteran funerals from protests by the Westboro Baptist Church. He provides support for Honor Flights that take World War II veterans to the nation’s capitol. He meets with Gold Star families, whose loved ones paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.

“I don’t mean to blow this out of proportion,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “But I have so much stuff going on.”

The former Army staff sergeant from Largo, widely known as “T-Man,” says he doesn’t mind the intense tempo.

“I love what I do,” he says.

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But even as he gears up for the drive down to south Hillsborough, there is a weariness in his eyes. For some time now, Brown has been waging a battle against cancer — a fight that has put him at odds with the Veterans Administration, which he and others say has put up roadblocks to treatment. The VA disputes the charge.

With all he does for veterans, Brown has earned a lot of respect. That’s one reason friends are hoping to name a 24-bed shelter for homeless male veterans in his honor.

But first the Tampa City Council has to sign off on a zoning change, not a given since there is neighborhood opposition.

“Thomas has worked so hard to assist all veterans we thought it would be appropriate to name this building after him,” says Sara Romeo, his boss and CEO of Tampa Crossroads. “Of course, he says that’s not necessary.”

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Before heading to Ruskin to check on a homeless veteran who calls himself “Roofer Randy,” Brown sits at his desk attending to last-minute details in the case of another veteran.

Attached to the wall over his head is a triangular wooden box with an American flag folded in the ceremonial triangle. At his feet is a small box next to the refrigerator.

For Brown, both are significant. They also are chilling reminders of the challenges faced by those who serve and those who love them.

The flag was given to him at the graveside service of a veteran buried at the Sarasota National Cemetery. He accepted it with great reluctance.

“My son Isac is serving now and no parent wants to be on that front row,” he explains.

Inside the box are the remains of David Ben Moche, a homeless Navy veteran, who, like Roofer Randy, he tried to help.

“But when I got to him, he was dead,” Brown said. Now the man’s ashes are in the box.

“He loved Lake Okeechobee,” Brown says. “We are going to ride down and give him a decent send off.”

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But first there is the trip to Ruskin. T-Man, who prefers riding one of his three motorcycles, uses his pickup for work because it’s more practical. The bed of the 1997 Ford F-150 is piled high with donated backpacks, clothing and personal hygiene products, making it a rolling supply depot for veterans in need.

Bev Young, widow of the late U.S. Rep. Bill Young and a strong advocate for veterans in her own right, says Brown fills in service gaps the Veterans Administration can’t meet.

“T-Man gets paid to do a job for veterans, but he takes it a step further,” she said. “When he sees a personal need the government won’t pay for, he will find a home, clothing, a doctor, anything.”

Law enforcement officers who work closely with Brown say he brings a unique understanding to the job.

“He’s the go-to guy,” says Tampa Police officer Dan McDonald, who works with his agency’s homeless unit.

“He can connect with veterans because he is a veteran himself,” says Stephanie Krager, a deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office homeless initiative.

Even Brown’s second ex-wife, Yvonne Brown, sings his praises.

“He is consumed by it,” she says of T-Man’s drive to help others.

Tampa Crossroad’s Romeo lauds Brown both for his ability to relate to veterans as a veteran and his can-do attitude.

“He has his whole persona that nobody is going to be left behind,” she says. “He goes back over and over to the men and women who have been homeless for years.”

Law enforcement officers who work closely with Brown say he brings a unique blend of experience and understanding to the job.

“He’s the go-to guy,” says Tampa Police officer Dan McDonald, who works with his agency’s homeless unit.

“He can connect with veterans because he is a veteran himself,” says Stephanie Krager, a deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office homeless initiative.

Even Brown’s second ex-wife, Yvonne Brown, sings his praises, noting he has a long history of social work as a corrections officer and child protective services investigator among other professional endeavors.

“He is consumed by it,” she says of T-Man’s drive to help others.

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That drive takes him to the side of the road in Ruskin. Grabbing a tent and a backpack, he trudges down an embankment, across railroad tracks and into a clearing in the woods.

“Randy?” he calls out.

“Yeah?” comes a voice from behind a stand of bushes

“Where you at?” asks Brown. “I come bearing gifts.”

A small wiry man wearing a dirty green shirt and sweat pants emerges from behind a clump of trees.

“Roofer Randy, child of god and nature,” he says.

For more than a half-hour, Brown tries to convince Randy Duane Strieby, who says he was in the Army from 1970 to 1973, to go to a shelter. Strieby declines, saying he doesn’t want to be too far from where he works as a roofer. With other things to do, Brown gives him a ride to a nearby house and continues on with his busy day, trying to track down homeless veterans for a Veterans Day event in Tampa.

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A few days later, Brown is the guest of honor at the American Gold Star Mothers Tampa Bay chapter lunch, held at the home of Annette and Michael Kirk. Their son, Army Pfc. Paul Cuzzupe II, was 23 when he was killed Aug. 8, 2010 in Afghanistan.

“He was the ride captain at my son’s funeral in 2010,” says Annette Kirk, recalling memories of Brown shared by several of the families. “I remember this tall man, he was very kind and very gentle. He was soft-spoken to me and my entire family. He directed a lot of compassion to me and my husband Mike.”

Surrounded by a half-dozen Gold Star moms wearing their traditional white, Brown, dressed in a red Biketoberfest T-shirt, accepts a $200 check from the group on behalf of Tampa Crossroads.

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On Nov. 5, after the Town ‘N Country Veterans Day parade, Brown and his fellow Patriot Guard Riders roar off to Okeechobee with the remains of the homeless veteran.

“He deserves a proper send off,” says Brown. “And we are going to give him the honor he is due.”

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