McMURRAY – Alexis Vitale cringes any time someone refers to her husband, Doug, in the past tense.
“That’s not fair to him,” she said after her husband’s homecoming. “He’s still here. He’s still alive.”
The Marine Corps sergeant was severely wounded in an improvised bomb attack in Afghanistan nearly two years ago. Doug Vitale lost both legs, has suffered two strokes following the attack and is unable to speak.
But Alexis and their family say that although Doug can’t talk to them, he can still express his personality and sense of humor.
“A lot of him has been injured so severely,” Alexis said. “The things we’ve been left with are the most important to us.”
Doug’s father, Dale, said the family has learned over time how to communicate with him in ways others might not understand. It’s one of the many blessings the family says it has received since the attack Sept. 25, 2011.
“We can communicate. We can read him,” Dale said. “He knows everybody. It’s fabulous. He’s joking around, learning new things.”
After nearly two years of intense rehabilitation in Tampa, Fla., the family was happy to finally bring Doug home to a hero’s welcome Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of supporters gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 764 as more than 70 motorcycles led Vitales’ motorcade from Allegheny County Airport to McMurray.
“This is the welcome home parade Doug didn’t get at (Marine Corps) Camp Lejeune,” Alexis said, adding that the motorcycle escort was especially impressive. “(Doug) was loving every minute of that.”
The crowd clapped wildly for Doug when he was brought onto the small riser and many in attendance dabbed away tears while speakers talked about his service and sacrifice for the country. Since the attack, he has undergone intense rehabilitation, which includes stretching of his arms and hands, Botox treatments for his tendons and speech therapy to help him learn how to swallow again.
The homecoming celebration in McMurray kicked off a weeklong schedule of events that will bring Vitale to Steelers training camp and a Pirates game before culminating with the fundraising concert by actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band at Stage AE in Pittsburgh. The proceeds from the concert, along with financial support from the Tunnel to Towers organization, will help the Vitale family build a “smart house” tailored for the special needs of a wounded veteran.
Members of VFW Post 764 also have been working hard to help by raising nearly $100,000 for the family to design the interior of the home. Right before the homecoming ceremony, a woman driving in her car leaned out the window and handed $40 in cash to a VFW member as a donation for the new home. Last week, a woman dropped by the post to write a $500 check for the family.
“They’re amazing. They held us together,” Alexis said of the community’s support. “(The smart home) is an opportunity to live as normal of a life as we can … with the people we love.”
Scott Huenefeld, commander for VFW Post 764, helped to organize the homecoming and became emotional before the ceremony while talking about Vitale and other wounded veterans.
“It has gone past all expectations. I’ve met some truly wonderful people,” Huenefeld said of Saturday’s homecoming. “We will take care of these kids forever. It’s a complete labor of love, and we’re not finished. I don’t know if we’ll ever honestly be finished.”
Doug and Alexis plan to remain in this area for three weeks, while they visit family and sign the paperwork on their new smart home at Chadwick Estates in Peters Township. They will then return to Florida to continue rehabilitation and later live with Vitale’s parents, who are moving from the Vandergrift area into a new townhouse near Finleyville in October.
Tickets are still available for Friday night’s concert to see the Lt. Dan Band at Stage AE in Pittsburgh. For ticket information, go to www.operationdoug.com.