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Local veterans’ support group gets new home

MANATEE — Their job is to welcome home the troops, and now they have a home to call their own.

For the past two years, Manatee’s Operation Troop Support has worked mainly out of teacher Jim Comkowycz’s classroom at King Middle School and volunteers’ garages.

A grant totaling $85,000 from the Florida BRAIVE Fund and administered by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice has allowed the group to rent office space and broaden the support services offered in Manatee County.

The group also has plans for outreach work in Sarasota County, spurring a name change to Manasota’s Operation Troop Support.

Known by volunteers as MOTS, they began moving donated furniture into their offices at the Lakewood Business Park in Bradenton with two of their first paid employees—veterans.

“We’re using our money for the veterans to help the veterans. That way our money works twice,” said Comkowycz, the group’s founder and director.

Lifting a desk together, Army veteran Jake Reid and Marine veteran Trikun Pongiftakyothin maneuvered the heavy piece out the door of an empty office and into the back of a box truck on loan from Servpro, a nearby company reaching out to their new neighbors in the office park.

“You have to give back,” said property manager Linda Lamp as she led the way to another empty office for more furniture donated by the business complex to their newest lessees. Eventually, gathered furniture and equipment added up to five desks, filing cabinets, telephone equipment, a dedicated fax, an 800 line, two phones and an advertisement on their Web site. “You can’t just do nothing,” she said.

“Jim started this from nothing,” said Pongiftakyothin as he moved furniture. A veteran of two deployments to Iraq, Pongiftakyothin has set his sights on attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology after obtaining an A.S. and an A.A. at State College of Florida, formerly Manatee Community College.

“Now we’ll be more organized and we can see people face to face,” said Pongiftakyothin.

MOTS help has proved even more crucial for Reid, whose goals include starting his own restaurant.

“I was homeless,” said Reid, a veteran of Afghanistan who was in basic training when 9/11 happened. “I found Jim and MOTS on the Internet. He’s been helping me ever since.”

The vision for the group of MOTS director Comkowycz goes beyond providing care packages for deployed troops to offering substantial support services to families as well.

Before, during and after deployment, soldiers and their families have only to voice their needs and Comkowycz will try to make it happen.

When Comkowycz’s son, Jeffrey, was wounded in Iraq, the family’s experiences through their son’s treatment, outpatient care and use of services from the Department of Veterans Affairs highlighted needs that could be met — but were not.

“There is no one size fits all,” said Comkowycz, when it comes to supporting the troops and their families.

At 6 p.m. tonight veterans will gather for a support meeting. They will speak of things that most people may not understand, but they will know they are in a place where understanding is more than words and platitudes.

“This is amazing stuff,” said Comkowycz as he looked around his new office — a home for MOTS.

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