Cook: Help for homeless vets a final wish
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It would be inaccurate to suggest that Mike Fornear is willing to give up his life for the cause. If he could turn back time to July and change his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's Disease, he surely would. But now that he's nearly paralyzed, has difficulty speaking and is looking at fewer than three months to live, he is trying to make something good of his horrible situation. There is a powerful lesson about purpose and dignity to the very end in his story.
"If there is even one homeless vet in this country, that's ridiculous," Fornear was saying last week in an upstairs bedroom in his home in Venetia, Pa. "We use these kids to fight wars for us. The day they graduate from boot camp, they are the proudest men in the world. Then they come home and we abandon them? We let them live under bridges and do drugs? That's just not acceptable.
"If it takes me dying to bring attention to this, that's a pretty good way to go out."
Fornear always has been civic-minded. He grew up in Upper St. Clair with Kirk Ferentz, football coach at Iowa. Their dads were best pals in the local youth athletic association. When Bob Fornear, John Ferentz and legendary Upper St. Clair football coach Joe Moore died within six months of each other in 2003, Fornear and Ferentz started the Upper St. Clair Founders Fund to honor the memories of the three men. Each summer, they stage a series of baseball games with the proceeds going to a local charity. This summer, the money was sent to the Miracle League Field in Upper St. Clair, the pet project of former big leaguer Sean Casey, another Upper St. Clair man.
The homeless veterans cause especially touched Fornear. He has suffered from non-service-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for much of his life, often to the point of debilitation. He knows it's a common malady for military people, many of whom don't have the same support system that he did. Two years ago, he heard a speech by retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, head of the Department of Veteran Affairs, in which Shinseki pledged to eliminate homelessness for struggling vets. "Let's end this once and for all with the help of every American," Fornear remembers Shinseki saying.
"I called Kirk right away and said, 'We have a chance to really do something good here,' " he said.
It made sense to start with Ferentz because of their friendship and because "we're football-mad in this country," Fornear said. Ferentz reached out to the Big Ten Conference's 11 other football coaches, who agreed to do public-service announcements in the summer of 2011. Another Upper St. Clair native -- Pittsburgh restaurateur Jeff Joyce -- became involved, just as he had with the Founders Fund. He played basketball at North Carolina with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. The Big Ten Network provided free time for the PSAs. The Homeless Veterans Project, Inc., was born.
Although the initial response wasn't good -- only about $1,800 was raised -- Fornear wasn't deterred. His idea is to spread word about the project one state at a time. The campaign kicks off this week -- Veteran's Day is recognized on Monday -- in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Ohio. More information can be found at www.pa4vets.org.
"Please, check it out," Fornear said. "We've got a good game plan."
Ferentz is honorary chairman of the project in Iowa, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer in Ohio. Fornear said Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has agreed to join his team in Pennsylvania after the season.
"Our goal is to get this thing going in three states every year until we have all 50 covered," Fornear said.
Fornear, 58, knows he won't live long enough to see that happen. That will be up to Ferentz, Meyer, O'Brien, Joyce -- the project's chairman -- and so many others. Fornear began experiencing muscle fatigue during his workouts in April. "It kept getting worse," he said. "By July, I couldn't twist open a gallon of milk with my right hand."
The diagnosis was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It is an incurable, fatal neuromuscular disease.
"It's really kicking my butt," Fornear said.
It's hard on Fornear's wife, Beth, his primary caregiver. They have two daughters -- Megan, 30, and Molly, 25. Tears filled Fornear's eyes when he mentioned that Molly celebrated her birthday last week. "I won't be around to see her next birthday," he said.
But Fornear hardly is feeling sorry for himself. Each day, he gets up and works on the project's websites, which he designed. He struggles to lift his laptop onto a big pillow on his lap and struggles to get it open. He's thankful he still can type with the index finger on each hand, although he knows that ability soon will go. He plans to keep preaching his message for as long as he can.
"We need everybody," Fornear said. "We need big corporations, but we also need the little guys. There are a million causes out there. I know that. But this one is a no-brainer to me. These people have given so much for us. They were willing to give their life."
Fornear's wish is that the Homeless Veterans Project does for troubled vets what the Pittsburgh Promise is doing for Pittsburgh public school students.
It is not inaccurate to suggest it is his dying wish.
First Published November 6, 2012 12:00 am