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Wounded Vandergrift Marine battles back

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Vandergrift native Doug Vitale is making strides toward a new normal, close friend Maria Suluva says.

The 25-year-old Vitale was a Marine corporal when he lost both legs and suffered major brain damage from stepping on a homemade mine on Sept. 25, 2011, in Sangin, Afghanistan. Vitale, a 2005 graduate of Kiski Area High School, spent about two months in a coma in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“He's awake now,” said Suluva, who said she's been Vitale's friend his entire life. “He's currently in Tampa, with his wife, Lexi, getting treatment for his brain injury.“

“He recently got two new titanium legs,” she said. “So he has to learn how to walk all over again.”

Suluva said that Vitale can't talk due to his brain injury.

“He's mumbled a couple things and said ‘Mom,'” she said. “We're hoping the therapies he's going through will help him talk again.”

Suluva said Vitale's memory is intact, something she's grateful for.

“I went down to see him recently,” she said. “As soon as I walked in the door, his eyes got really big. He knew exactly who I was.”

Hometown hero

On Friday, the students at Allegheny-Hyde Park Elementary School honored Vitale at their Veterans Day assembly.

Fifth-grade teacher Rebekah Stankowski, the assembly's coordinator, said, “This year, we focused on a hometown hero, Doug Vitale ... since he is a Kiski Area grad.”

The children wrote essays about what a hero means to them. They listened to veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan talk about their service to the country.

The assembly included a video about Vitale, which included footage of him before he suffered his combat injuries.

“I had about 35 veterans as well as the teachers who were in tears watching this video,” Stankowski said.

Another component of the Veterans Day program was the “hugs and kisses” campaign the school conducted during parent-teacher conferences.

The campaign's goal was to raise money to help Vitale.

Parents, teachers and students made donations. In return, they received Hershey's candy hugs and kisses to give each other with messages.

Stankowski said the effort raised about $2,000 for Vitale, which will be delivered to him along with a sign made for the assembly. The sign reads “Doug Vitale is our hero” and is signed by the students and faculty at the school.

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