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When Nick Liermann (CGS ’00) and Erick Foster first met as members of the Three Rivers Army Battalion in 1996, they had different views of the world.
Foster, a Pittsburgh native, was attending Duquesne University, while Liermann, a Chester County native, was seeking a more urban college experience and attending Pitt.
Liermann "skated through high school" and says he was far less motivated than his friend. At Three Rivers, Foster was the first to step up when something needed to be done, recalls Liermann.
The "Army process" — field exercises, strict rules, 6 a.m. runs, discipline and more — played a crucial role in what Liermann describes as his transition from a “self-centered, apathetic, lazy kid to a motivated, driven person who was interested in giving back." But he also attributes much of his transformation to Foster.
"A lot of that was because of Erick. He was a big part in making me realize there is a world where caring about other people and taking care of our community is far more fulfilling than the self-centered existence I'd been maintaining."
Both cadets graduated into active duty in 2000 — just one year before the tragic events of 9/11. Unfortunately, only Liermann returned home: Capt. Foster was killed in 2007 while engaging enemy forces in Iraq. During his seven years of service, Foster’s bravery earned him the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Parachutist Badge (Airborne) and Ranger Tab.
Liermann, who struggled after his own deployment, felt the need to honor his friend. So, in 2014, he founded Team Foster, a nonprofit committed to raising money to provide trained service dogs for injured and disabled veterans.
The organization, whose motto is “no hero left behind,” focuses on fundraising events that are physically challenging and conducive to teamwork in homage to Capt. Foster, who “was a big fan of seeing how far we could take it, how far we could go,” says Liermann. “During group workouts, he was also the first person to encourage someone having a difficult time.”
Team Foster’s events, which in the past have individually raised upwards of $10,000, fund a service dog and the necessary training so the costs don’t fall on veterans.
“Service dogs are a vital tool for our veterans’ rehab and recovery but are expensive and resource intensive,” notes Team Foster’s official website. “One properly trained service dog can take two years and more than $25,000 train.”
Though launched in Philadelphia, Team Foster is expanding and coming “home” to Pittsburgh.
“The two of us commissioned on active duty at Heinz Chapel,” says Liermann. “Erick is buried in Oil City, his parents still live in Wexford, so it feels like coming home.”
To continue the mission, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, Team Foster will host Ruff Ride, a 24-hour cycling marathon and its first large-scale event in Pittsburgh on Schenley Plaza, sponsored by Pitt, UPMC, Chartwells Food Services, CycleBar Robinson and others.
“This is a team effort and for athletes and nonathletes and is as much a festival as it is competition,” says Liermann.
He says considers Pitt’s sponsorship of the event humbling. “The University has a lot going on and a lot of opportunities to do good work, so to throw its support behind and bolster our Ruff Ride feels good.”
Christopher Boissonnault, the current scholarship and enrollment officer of the Three Rivers Army Battalion, oversees the organization’s ongoing partnership with Team Foster and confirmed that some current battalion members will attend.
“We’re extremely honored to do an event that hits this close to home for our students, our battalion, our University,” he says.
Sgt. Mike Geib is one of the veterans Team Foster has helped. Originally from central Pennsylvania, he served during the first Gulf War and developed PTSD, which deteriorated into substance abuse, agoraphobia and suicidal thoughts. Geib connected with Team Foster, who paired him with Cookie Dough, a service dog. Two years later, when Liermann received an invitation to throw the first pitch at a Phillies game and was asked to bring a veteran to change third base, he invited Geib.
"It happens that this was also the 10th anniversary of the Phillies’ World Series win, so the entire stadium was sold out with 50,000 people watching," says Liermann. "This man, who'd effectively been locked in his own home, unable to leave, went out in front of a city. No one would ever have guessed the challenges he'd overcome with his dog. It's a powerful and tangible example of the difference that these dogs make."
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Liermann says he is feeling emotional, reflective and reassured about his organization’s mission.
"Part of the reason Team Foster exists is it gives me and others an opportunity to take those emotions and do more than just remember," he says. "We must remember, but we also must do something about it, and I believe an important part of that is taking care of the men and women who have sacrificed so much. Some on 9/11, some before 9/11 and some every day since then to make our country what it is today."
Register for the Ruff Ride
Visit the Ruff Ride website to learn more about the Sept. 24 event and register yourself and your team.
— Kara Henderson, photography by Shannon Bergamasco