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Teacher's fund to honor former student killed in Iraq

| Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010

When one of his former students died in Iraq, social studies teacher Mark Wilson enlarged the young man's obituary photo and tucked it in his desk at North Allegheny Intermediate High School.

A roadside bomb killed Marine Corps Capt. Todd M. Siebert in Iraq on Feb. 16, 2007. He left a wife, two children and hundreds of family and friends who lined the flag-draped streets of Zelienople for his funeral.

"I kept the photo as a kind of reminder that teachers do affect kids' lives, and you have to remember what the cost is," said Wilson, 57, of Forward in Butler County and now retired. "Each of us has to remember when these young people go over to sacrifice their lives, a part of their body, or their minds, that costs all of us."

To show their gratitude, Wilson and his wife, Mary, also a retired teacher, have started a $10,000 fund with The Pittsburgh Foundation to help active-duty military, veterans and their families. The fund honors former students such as Siebert who served in the military and the couple's relatives who fought in World War II.

The fund is an example of how everyday people are stepping up to supplement services to veterans, something traditionally viewed as the responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs and not a target group for many large foundations.

Yet veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with battle scars physical and mental are facing a horizon limited by a lack of jobs and housing.

"We'll see a tidal wave of returning service members that require these essential services," said Albert H. Mercer, executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. The South Side-based group helps veterans find jobs and homes and offers other services.

The number of veterans the program serves climbed from 3,674 during the first 10 months of 2009 to 4,924 during the same period this year, an increase of 34 percent.

There are 302,066 veterans in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties, according to Veteran Affairs. Of these, 7,279 are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unemployment among veterans who left the military in the past three years is 18 percent, and 26 percent of homeless people in the country are veterans, according to the Veterans Leadership Program.

"When you can't find a job, and you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, you enter a spiral where you have no job, no income, and these veterans tend to self-medicate," Mercer said. "They may start drinking or taking drugs. They end up in jail or homeless."

In the past, veterans issues were not among priorities of the nation's foundations, whose leaders will meet Dec. 7 and 8 in Arlington, Va., to discuss ways to help them.

"Foundations have not traditionally been involved in this sector because it's been viewed largely as a government responsibility," said Doug Root, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments.

In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, military or veterans issues accounted for $61.4 million, or just 0.2 percent, of philanthropic giving, according to a survey of 1,500 of the biggest foundations by the Foundation Center.

Schools, companies and individuals are stepping up.

At Duquesne University, for example, occupational therapy students are working with homeless veterans at Shepherd's Heart Ministries, Uptown. The students help veterans suffering from PTSD get jobs.

Craig Alderman, 45, of Moon volunteered to plow snow for military families as part of Project EverGreen's SnowCare for Troops, a national program with hundreds of volunteers. A sister program, GreenCare for Troops, provides free lawn and landscaping services for military families.

"They're doing all they can do for us," said Alderman, a landscape and snow-plowing contractor. "It's the least we can do for them."

The Fort Pitt chapter of Verizon Pioneers, a group of 1,000 current and retired employees of the communications firm, sends care packages of toiletries and food to troops in Afghanistan.

Restaurants such as Applebee's, Outback Steakhouse and Golden Corral are offering free meals today or Monday for active-duty military and veterans.

Pittsburgh Steelers player Troy Polamalu and his wife, Theodora, gave $20,000 to the Veterans Leadership Program. The couple created a fund through The Pittsburgh Foundation in honor of World War II veteran Harry Panos, the grandfather of Polamalu's wife. Donors working through the foundation awarded nearly 40 grants totaling about $80,000 for veterans over the past couple of years.

Then there are the Wilsons.

Mark Wilson is honoring three uncles who served in World War II. One was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge; a second tended to soldiers wounded on D-Day; and a third drove a truck during the invasion of Italy.

His wife's father served in France during World War II, and her stepfather was a colonel in North Africa. The couple cherishes family relics such as dog tags, a uniform, photos and medals.

In setting up the fund, the couple also are honoring her mother, who stayed on the homefront.

"Not everybody who sacrificed served in the military," Wilson said.

He is haunted by memories of Siebert, the young man who sat in the third seat of the first row of social studies class, sometimes wearing his steel-blue Junior ROTC uniform.

"As I sit there and remember these people in class, it's like losing one of your own," Wilson said. "I often think if he had survived, what would he have done with the rest of his life for his family, for himself, for the nation."

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