Organization hopes to build home for disabled veteran
Saturday, March 10, 2007
What James Fair wants most in a home is one thing most of us take for granted.
"The hardest thing is being taken care of all the time," he says.
"He always did for himself," agrees his mother, Lonnie Mosco.
It sounds simple, but independence is a tall order for Homes for Our Troops, a Massachusetts-based charity that hopes to build a house in the North Hills for the disabled Army veteran.
At 3:30 p.m. today, Mr. Fair will be at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show to help raise money for his new house. On the second floor of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, he will sit near a 40-foot wall built by Duquesne Light. For each $5 donation, visitors can write a message to him in one of 1,000 squares in that wall.
Mr. Fair can't read them -- a bomb blast took his sight.
He can't shake your hand -- the blast took his hands, too.
But he is grateful, and quietly optimistic that he will one day be able to cook his favorite pork stir-fry on a new stove and grow tomatoes in his own vegetable garden, maybe even tinker once again on old cars -- "anything that doesn't have a computer," he says.
Mr. Fair, 25, grew up in Lawrenceville and graduated from Schenley High School in May 1999. That same year, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, for basic training. An engineering specialist, he was stationed in Korea, then sent to Iraq. On furloughs home, he got tattoos -- "James" in Gothic letters on his stomach, his two sisters' names on his chest.
On Nov. 12, 2003, he was taking a break from stringing barbed wire around a compound in Fallujah when a bomb exploded. He doesn't remember the explosion, doesn't remember being taken to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center three days later.
Rich Sieber, manager of corporate communications for Duquesne Light, came up with the idea to contact Homes for Our Troops and create the home show display for Mr. Fair. Since it was founded in February 2004, Homes for Our Troops has completed 14 projects and started 16 others. Most are new houses rather than renovations of existing homes. Mr. Fair's house, its third in Pennsylvania, is the most complicated so far because of the extent of his injuries, said Kirt Rebello, director of projects and veteran affairs.
"James' house is our biggest challenge from a home adaptation standpoint," he said.
Because Mr. Fair has no hands, appliances and other equipment must be motion- or voice-activated. Among the items that will be part of home show display are a Toto toilet with a proximity sensor that automatically opens, closes, cleans and dries the user. Moen has donated motion-activated faucets and shower spray. Duquesne Light plans to donate some assistive equipment and Homes for Our Troops is still looking for a company to donate a voice-activated security system.
The organization is looking to buy a lot in Ross, Mr. Fair's chosen community, and for a contractor who will build the four-bedroom house expected to cost about $300,000. The first floor would be entirely wheelchair-accessible (shrapnel in his right leg makes it difficult to walk), while the second floor would be for Mr. and Mrs. Mosco and their younger daughter.
Mr. Fair is hoping to find assistive technology that will allow him to cook for himself. He also came up with the idea of varying textures in the radiant heat floors so he will know his bearings. He'd like a rear deck, front porch, front and back yards and maybe a hot tub, he says, smiling when someone mentions that there will be a few at the home show.
Mr. Fair already has a computer with voice recognition software that lets him surf the Internet. It's not working quite right yet, he says. He also has a voice-activated remote control for the television, but he won't use it, his mother says.
A deli bakery manager at a Shop 'n Save supermarket, Mrs. Mosco helps tend to her son's needs when she's not at work. He also has a nurse's aide and his stepfather, a retired truck driver.
"He's our savior. He can stay home with Jimmy," Mrs. Mosco says.
The three of them joke around as a photographer takes pictures.
"Keep your hands to yourself," she says, drawing a smile from her son.
"Better watch out, I'll put bunny ears behind your head," he shoots back.
"How do you know I'm not doing that to you right now?" his stepfather says.
"I'd know. I'd feel it," Mr. Fair says.
One day, he hopes to attend the University of Pittsburgh and get a degree in psychology. He'd like to practice from his home, he says, and work with disabled children.
Andy Pope of Latrobe, a Vietnam War veteran who befriended Mr. Fair after reading about him in a newspaper, would like him to counsel other veterans, too, helping them adapt once they return from service. Mr. Pope, a consultant in assistive technology for 17 years, has created a strap that allows Mr. Fair to shoot a rifle. After a session on the rifle range last year, Mr. Fair said to his friend:
"'To feel that recoil on my shoulder again made me feel like a man,'" Mr. Pope recalls.
This summer, Mr. Pope plans to take him on a special hunt in Texas with other disabled veterans. Last summer, Mr. Pope took Mr. Fair horseback riding for the first time. Mr. Fair says he wished he had tried it long ago.
"It's very peaceful, very calming," he says.
Some people have asked him his feelings on U.S. involvement in Iraq. Before he went, he felt as if U.S. troops didn't belong there. But it was his choice to enlist, he says, and he was willing to do his duty. Now that he's back, his feelings haven't changed much.
"Why keep sending our troops over to get killed or wounded?" he says. "Walter Reed is too full already."
He's not really into politics, though. He's much more interested in talking about his dream home and the things he wants to do.
"Hopefully, it will help me become more independent," he says.
(Kevin Kirkland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. )