Western Pa. throws homecoming bash for wounded Marine Corps Sgt. Doug Vitale
Marine Corps Sgt. Doug Vitale came home to a hero's welcome on Saturday with the rumble of motorcycle engines, the waving of American flags and the embrace of friends who had not seen him in years.
The native of North Huntingdon and Vandergrift left Western Pennsylvania in 2011 to serve with the military at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. While deployed in Afghanistan later that year, he stepped on a roadside bomb's pressure plate, losing his legs and suffering strokes that left him unable to speak.
Vitale, 26, arrived at VFW Post 764 in McMurray, riding with his wife, Alexis, as guests of honor in a motorcade led by more than 100 members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group. Fire trucks from Peters and North Strabane formed an arch over the post entrance with their ladders extended to hold a large American flag.
“There's nothing more important than showing our support,” said Patti Daily, 53, of Cecil, who made a sign on green poster paper and stood by the road clapping.
About 250 people turned out to celebrate with Vitale and thank him for his service during a ceremony that included a prayer, songs and speeches. Vitale sat silently in a wheelchair, wearing a black polo shirt and sunglasses, occasionally moving his arms from where they rested on Steelers pillows. His wife stood by his side.
“It is so wonderful to be home in Pittsburgh,” said his father, Dale. “For a long time, it has been Doug's journey to be away and fighting for our freedom.”
More than 50,000 service members have been injured during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army Brig. Gen. Lewis Irwin of McMurray reminded the audience that tens of thousands of troops remain in harm's way.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation — named for a firefighter who died on 9/11 in New York City — chose Vitale to be honored because of the severity of his injuries.
The ceremony kicked off a week of events that includes visits to Steelers training camp in Latrobe and a Pirates game, as well as a benefit concert Friday featuring actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band at Stage AE on the North Shore.
Organizers are seeking to raise $500,000 to build a smart home for Vitale and his wife in the Chadwick Estates subdivision in Peters. The home will be designed to accommodate Vitale's unique needs with a therapy room, a double-sided elevator and iPad controls for lights and ventilation.
“We're really happy to be moving home,” said Alexis Vitale, 27. “This is allowing us to live as normal a life as we can, out of a hospital setting and with the people we love.”
The VFW post has raised about $98,500 through fundraisers over the past year, said Scotty Huenefeld, post commander.
“Whatever it took, that's what we were going to do,” Huenefeld said. “He's one of our own, and we couldn't help too much.”
Tunnel to Towers has completed six homes for veterans, has 10 under way and has committed to a total of 52 through 2015, spokesman Chris Kuban said.
“It's an amazing feeling to be giving back just a little independence for these guys who gave so much to us,” Kuban said.
When the house is completed next year, Vitale will be able to return home permanently to Western Pennsylvania. He has been living with his wife and parents in Tampa, where he is a patient in the Polytrauma Rehabilitation program for brain injuries at the James A. Haley VA Hospital. Before that, he spent a year at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Md.
Vitale graduated from Kiski Area High School in 2005 and met his wife, who grew up in Peters, at Slippery Rock University, where she was a student. He attended Slippery Rock for a year but wanted to be a Marine, especially after a family friend was killed in Iraq.
Vitale joined the Marines in October 2007, and the couple married in May 2010. Moving back home, she said, will reunite them with family and friends.
“We spend every day in the hospital,” she said. “We don't have any friends, and we don't really know anyone. It's lonely.”
Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.