The call that changed everything
Alexis Abraham Vitale knows exactly where she was when her telephone rang Sept. 25, 2011.
The voice on the other end asked if she was Marine Cpl. Doug Vitale’s wife and she said yes. At the time, Doug, then 24, was deployed to Afghanistan.
Alexis, then 25, remembers it was a Sunday and she was in Jacksonville, N.C., working as a substitute teacher while Doug was overseas. The caller asked if she was driving or if she was alone.
It was then, Alexis, a 2004 graduate of Peters Township High School, knew that her life was going to change forever.
Fearing the worst, Alexis asked, “Is my husband alive?” and the caller said yes. That was the good news.
Doug, a graduate of Kiski Area High School, was on patrol about fourth or fifth behind the leader with each Marine stepping footprint to footprint.
Alexis said Doug, her college sweetheart at Slippery Rock University, weighed 230 pounds and was wearing about 100 pounds of gear. It is theorized that his total weight on the footprint set off an improvised explosive device, blowing off both legs.
Three days later, Alexis was told he also suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“The days are kind of a blur, but the kind of blur you don’t forget,” Alexis said.
Her mother, Denise Abraham of Peters Township, arrived in North Carolina the day after her daughter received the telephone call.
“Alexis is a realist, very realistic. She is absolutely amazing,” Denise Abraham said. “She’s my little girl, and I watched her grow up overnight.”
Four high school friends drove to Jacksonville to comfort and support Alexis. Together the friends, Alexis and her mother drove back to Peters Township.
Doug was treated in Afghanistan, then flown to Germany, arriving in Washington, D.C., four days after the explosion. It was then Alexis saw him for the first time and realized the full extent of his injuries.
A year has passed and Doug is in rehabilitation in Tampa, Fla. Alexis is by his side except for the time she spends at the local Fisher House – housing for families, active military or veterans in rehab.
After the injury, Alexis briefly returned to North Carolina to sell their townhouse and to place their possessions in storage.
Every day she is with Doug as he attempts to battle back to as normal a life as possible.
The couple married in Peters Township May 30, 2010, and then moved to North Carolina.
“They had the perfect corner in a perfect world and then he went to Afghanistan and suffered a brain injury and lost both legs when he was 24 years old,” said Denise Abraham, a nurse.
A year after the injuries, Alexis said Doug,“recognizes all his family members and friends. He’s very with it and he looks pretty normal and people think he can’t hear them, but his hearing is OK and his vision is OK.”
He’s lost the ability to speak, but he can squeeze her hand.
Half of his skull was removed for six months because of brain swelling when he was in Afghanistan. Since then, Doug has suffered strokes on both sides of his brain, resulting in loss of motor control.
“Yes, he gets frustrated, he’ll shut down emotionally,” Alexis said. “He shows frustration, sadness, then happiness. He knows what’s happened. He has about 40 facial expressions.” And that is how he communicates.
She encourages him through four therapies each morning.
In the afternoon, the couple “goes places, like the park or bowling with rec therapy.” She recently rented a house and takes Doug to visit.
In another year, the couple will return to the Pittsburgh area where they will find support from family and friends. That return will include a house built specifically to accommodate Doug’s needs, and that’s where several organizations will come in to help financially.
VFW Post 764 in Peters Township will host a “Hero Walk” Sept. 22 with the proceeds benefiting the house fund.
The walk on Arrowhead Trail will commence from the post at 460 Valley Brook Road at 9 a.m. and continue until noon. Lunch will be held in the post from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m.
VFW Post Commander Scott H. Huenefeld said this is the first time, to his knowledge, that the post has participated in such a fundraiser. The donation for the walk and lunch is $15. For the lunch only, it’s $10.
Huenefeld said walkers can go at their own pace along the trail.
Alexis and Doug cannot attend the event, but that doesn’t matter to the members of the post.
“We like him even though he is a Marine,” Huenefeld, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, said with a sly laugh. Even though Doug is in rehabilitation, he remains on active duty.
Additional financial support is designated to the Vitale family for the home through actor Gary Sinise’s Building for America’s Bravest. Sinise also is a supporter of Tunnel to Towers, an organization dedicated to those first responders lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
To register for the walk and lunch before the Wednesday deadline, send the name or names of those participating along with the $15 or $10 donation to: Peters VFW 764, 460 Valley Brook Road, McMurray, PA 15317, call 724-941-3358 or e-mail email@example.com. Checks should be made payable to VFW 764 Charity Fund.