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WNY native fights for medical care for other vets with Operation Backbone

The youngest of four children, Mike Sformo had no interest in formal education, dating back to his days at Pembroke Intermediate School, where his father served as principal.

When it was time to go to high school, Sformo said his parents pulled him out of public school and sent him to Notre Dame Catholic High School in Batavia.

“I think my dad got tired of seeing me in his office,” Sformo said, explaining that his parents believed he would receive more discipline at the private school.

As it turned out, he loved Notre Dame because it’s where he met the love of his life, the former Maria Fronckowiak, whom he would marry.

“I spent all my time chasing her around,” said Sformo, who grew up in Corfu.

When he graduated high school in 1991, his father sat him down and gently read him the riot act.

“Mike, obviously college is not your thing. So you need to figure this out right now because you are not going to sit around and do nothing. You have two weeks to figure it out,” Larry Sformo told his son.

The very next day the teenager drove to the Navy recruiting office in Batavia.

“I asked, ‘What is the fastest and furthest place you can get me to?’ The recruiter said, ‘I can get you out of here in four days and how does San Diego sound?’ I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

Soon after boot camp, Sformo was assigned to a guided missile cruiser enforcing no-fly zones imposed as a result of the First Gulf War.

“Our goal was to maintain and shadow our aircraft carriers involved in Operation Southern Watch so that no one got close to them,” he said.

On a nightly basis, Somalian insurgents in small attack boats approached the carriers only to be doused by fire hoses.

“They were mainly trying to scare us,” Sformo said of the Somalis. “But we never knew if one of their boats was loaded with explosives. We were at our 50-caliber guns ready to use them if necessary.”

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Mike Sformo, 45

Hometown: Corfu

Residence: Centreville, Maryland

Branch: Navy

Rank: E-4 petty officer

War zone: First Gulf War

Years of service: 1991 - 1995

Most prominent honors: Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Southwest Asia Service Medal with Bronze Star

Specialty: nuclear rigger

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But for Sformo, his biggest battles would take place years after he left the Navy and suffered a severe neck injury while weight lifting.

It was in 2010.

“I received a $127 bill that wasn’t covered by my medical insurance. I was told to go to the Veterans Administration. When I went there, they laughed when I asked them to cover the charge.”

The rejection, he said, provided the catalyst for what has become a non-profit organization known as Operation Backbone that Sformo started in 2011.

“I became infuriated when the VA wouldn’t cover the reimbursement. I was thinking what would my wife do if we didn’t have any resources,” he said, adding he could not stop thinking about other veterans who do not have a support network.

Operation Backbone’s mission, Sformo explained, is to work with both injured active duty military members and veterans who are denied medical treatment by the government.

His organization includes neurologists, spinal surgeons, radiologists and other medical specialists who conduct in-depth reviews of injuries for which treatment has been denied.

Navy vet Mike Sformo, left, would like to help more injured veterans like Kurt Santini of Virginia, but he says the government often makes it difficult. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“When these guys get hurt, if it isn’t diagnosed properly, they keep going out in the field and they just keep compounding issues,” Sformo said. “What I hear from every doctor is ‘Damn, if he had only come two years earlier.’ ”

But with the correct diagnoses, Sformo said he usually succeeds in making a case for corrective surgeries.

Hundreds have been assisted by Operation Backbone, but there are many more who are awaiting their turn for the organization to do battle on their behalf with the  military and VA, Sformo added.

What troubles him is that many of the people awaiting help are prescribed opioids to treat the pain from the symptoms but little is done to treat the actual cause of the injuries. That, he said, leads to addiction and, in some cases, suicide.

In addition to recruiting members of the medical profession, Sformo said he has enlisted the help of some prominent individuals. They include Charlie Jacobs, head of Delaware North’s Boston Holdings; Tom Gaglardi, owner of the NHL’s Dallas Stars; and, early on, Terry Pegula after he bought the Buffalo Sabres.

In cases when the government refuses to pay, Sformo said the void is filled by the generosity of doctors and hospitals.

And that’s what happened with veteran Kurt Santini, a Virginia resident, who for about 17 years was denied surgery by the VA for upper neck injuries he suffered during an Army training mission involving a parachute jump.

Last Tuesday, Santini was operated on at Kenmore Mercy Hospital by Dr. Franco Vigna, a Niagara Falls surgeon.

“The doctor volunteered his time and energy and Kenmore Mercy and Catholic Health donated everything else,” Sformo said.

He says he wants to help more veterans, but the government remains an obstacle.

“It’s shameful what I see. Our government has the means and ability to do what I need done to help more veterans, but they actively do not do it,” he said.

Yet when he succeeds in convincing the government to approve a surgery, Sformo says there is no better feeling in the world.

“When you see a Navy Seal with tears coming from his eyes, knowing that the surgery is really going to change his life, it’s an amazing thing.”

Sformo, who lives in Maryland with his wife, Maria, and their three children, says Operation Backbone is a family affair.

“My children understand what it is I do. They’ve seen pictures of injuries and they’ve met the actual soldiers. They understand when I’m sometimes gone for weeks,” he said.

But he offers the biggest praise for his spouse:

“She has inspired me to keep going. She has kept me on track nonstop.”

 

 

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