Veteran feels light n his dark world
CORAOPOLIS - James Fair can't see.
The Times/KEVIN LORENZI James Fair of Coraopolis lost his eyesight and both hands in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Army. A group called Homes for Our Troops wants to build him a new with features to help him regain his independence.
But he wills himself to bring light into his dark world.
He can't touch.
But the 25-year-old Coraopolis resident can feel the goodness of those who reach out to him.
Twelve hundred days ago, Army Spc. James Fair, a combat engineer, lost his sight and his hands and forearms when a makeshift bomb exploded in his path in Fallujah, Iraq.
Shrapnel pierced his right leg, broke bones in his face and jarred his brain.
His world faded to black in November 2003. It didn't end. And though his body looks frail, his face scarred and his movements awkward, Fair claims he isn't a shadow of his former self.
He's smart, angry, frustrated, funny. He's a son who knows what buttons to push to make his mom laugh. And he's a soldier who knows he has to keep fighting to make his life as good as it can be.
"He has life," says his mother, Lonnie Mosco, his biggest advocate.
And he has support. Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization committed to helping troops with serious disabilities and injuries, is going to build Fair a specially adapted, technologically dazzling home that will give him back some of the independence he lost.
Because that's what Americans do for their own, founder John Gonsalves, a contractor from Raynham, Mass., said.
Since 2004, Homes for the Troops has built or adapted 14 homes, with 15 more under way in 15 states. The organization doesn't do it alone. The Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, Friday through March 18 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.
It asks companies and contractors, communities and just folks to donate building materials, products, time and money. In three years, those donations have mounted to $9 million, Gonsalves said.
Exhibitors and visitors to the 10-day Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, which opens Friday, will be asked to help build Fair a home in a North Hills suburb of Pittsburgh.
HFOT estimates that $300,000 in materials and donations will be needed.
Two tiny American flags stand in one of several dirt-packed flower pots in front of a modest yellow-brick, white-sided house on Second Avenue in Coraopolis where James Fair lives.
It's been home to Fair, his mother and stepfather, Scott Mosco, and younger sister, Sandra, since 2005, when the family moved from a too-small house in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood.
In the small living room, Lonnie Mosco's collection of bunnies crowd a curio, and photographs of children and grandchildren are posed on an entertainment center that holds the TV that Fair listens to from morning until evening.
He sits or lies on one of two deep-cushioned brown couches. A matching recliner offers the same comfort.
Fair lounges on the longer couch most of his waking hours.
For three weeks now, winter's weather has stalled the mobility therapy intended to help him walk with a cane. But he can walk in his home, even up the steps to his bedroom.
And he's all but given up on the prosthetic training that focuses on hand skills. It's been four or five months since his last weekly therapy session, he said.
Besides, he doesn't like the two prosthetics that fit on his stumps just below his elbows. He sees no point in wearing them.
"They are basically for decoration," Fair said. And, he said, they're ugly.
That means his mom, stepfather or sister must feed him, hold a glass when he's thirsty, wipe his nose, brush his teeth, comb his hair. His mom had to work some at getting the right size wad of chew in the right spot in his mouth.
Fair's reliance on others expands from there. He cannot be at home alone.
For five hours on weekdays, a home aide is scheduled to help. That's bred frustration because the help isn't consistent, the family members said. Last week, an aide came twice.
Mosco guessed that 18 or more aides, who work for agencies contracted through the Department of Veterans Affairs, have come and gone because they simply can't figure how to help her son.
Fair gets angry when he has to tell aides over and over what to do.
Mosco said she spends hours after her daylight job at Shop 'n Save in Ross Township on the phone with the Department of Veterans Affairs contacts trying to sort through the problems.
"We are helping him to maintain his independence to live in the community through our services," said Ron Rabold, vice president of the community-based care service in the Department of Veterans Affairs' VA Pittsburgh Health Care System.
Fair's involvement with those services began Aug. 17, 2004, Rabold said.
And then there's the computer, Fair said. He hasn't been able to use the voice-activated computer Veterans Affairs gave him because the software is messed up. He wants to get on the Internet so he can find out about college courses and search for new technologies for the disabled that might help him.
He dreams of going to the University of Pittsburgh to become a psychologist for disabled children and holds out hope that hand and eye transplants may make his days better.
The issue isn't money. Fair said his disability and pensions provide him with ample money to meet his monthly payments.
And the frustration can't be solely blamed on bureaucracy or indifference. It's rooted in the extent of Fair's disabilities.
"They don't know what to do with me," Fair said.
Fair's disabilities compound each other. Much of the help available for blind people depends on a sense of touch, Mosco said. And prosthetics for hands are geared to hand-eye coordination, she said.
Mosco vows that she will find what help is available. John E. Spisso of Unity Township, western Pennsylvania's civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, has been a guiding light.
Last fall, the World War II combat veteran told Mosco about Homes for Our Troops.
Homes for Our Troops had James Fair's application when word came in November that Duquesne Light Co. was interested in the Taunton, Mass.-based program as part of its Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show sponsorship.
The match seemed ideal. The 10-day show boasts 1,600 exhibitors, thousands of visitors attend, and Fair certainly qualified for a house that could ease his day-to-day life.
The housing plans began with phone calls and were launched when coordinators from Duquesne Light and HFOT visited Fair's home in Coraopolis just before Christmas.
Mosco was sold on the idea from the beginning.
"It's pretty slick," Fair said. "People won't have to help me all the time,"
Slick seems to be apropos for the planned $300,000 house to be outfitted with state-of-the-art fixtures and products where Fair, as he jokingly put it, will rule.
"I'm going to be sitting in a chair made for my throne," he baited his mother.
"This house may be his, but the rules come from all of us," she said, laughing.
Fair's flair for humor is heightened by the home's possibilities, all of which, of course, depend upon HFOT and its generous supporters.
If the dream house becomes a reality, the first floor of the two-story home will be a suite of sorts for Fair, said Kirk Rebello, HFOT director of projects and veterans affairs.
He'll know what room he's in because the kitchen, dining room, living room and his bedroom will have different floor surfaces such as tile, hardwood or carpeting. Three upstairs bedrooms will accommodate his parents, sister and any guests.
His TV, stereo, remotes and security systems will be voice-activated. He'll wear a mobile chain called a proximity reader like those in ATM machines that will open and close the doors as he nears.
And even though HFOT hasn't found a lot to build on, several companies have already donated specially designed kitchen cabinets, easy-to-open windows, motion-sensitive faucets and an automatic toilet.
"It just ends up being a place that they can safely call home and don't have to make a mortgage payment on," said Rebello, a Marine Corps veteran. "It allows them to focus on their rehabilitation and their lives."
HFOT has adapted 14 houses, half of which were built from the ground up.
"This is the most challenging adaptation we've had," Rebello said, because of Fair's multiple disabilities.
Fair voiced his wish list. Most of all, he wants to able to be more independent, but he certainly wouldn't mind having a Jacuzzi.
That's not a necessity, Rebello said, but if a company donates a Jacuzzi, it's all his.
Patti Conley can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help:
Homes for Our Troops is building a $300,000 home for wounded veteran James Fair of Coraopolis one donation at a time. Information on how to donate building materials, services and money is available at these places:
A special section of the Duquesne Light Co.'s second-floor booth will feature information about Fair and an opportunity to sign a 6-by-40-foot wall for a $5 donation.
Show exhibitors and visitors may also sign up to donate materials and services.
Homes for Our Troops Web site at www.homesforourtroops.org, or by phone at (866) 7-TROOPS or (508) 823-3300.
Includes donations and application information for veterans.