Disabled Marine veteran opens door to new 'smart' home

Today, on Independence Day, disabled veteran Doug Vitale is getting a new home.

The story that led to this special day for Mr. Vitale and his wife, Alexis, stretches back decades, with lives and destinies intertwining in startling ways through war and violence around the globe. The common thread that ties it together is a spirit of sacrifice, resilience and giving.

One could be forgiven for thinking the story started Sept. 25, 2011, when a roadside bomb nearly killed Marine Sgt. Vitale while he was on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, in the Helmand Province. He lost his legs and, due to strokes from severe blood loss, the ability to speak.

You could say the story started 10 years earlier on that pristine autumn Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States. On that day, Stephen Gerard Siller, a 34-year-old Brooklyn firefighter, husband and father, ran with all his gear from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the burning World Trade Center towers. He perished in the flames.

To honor his memory, the firefighter’s siblings and cousins founded the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building state-of-the-art homes for quadruple- and triple-amputees and other catastrophically wounded veterans of the wars that stemmed from the terror attacks. The construction of the Vitale home would not have been possible without their dedication to honor Mr. Siller, nor would it have been necessary if not for the events of Sept. 11.

The story can be traced back further, though, to the inland waters of Vietnam. In July 1967, a 21-year-old sailor from Pittsburgh named Scott Huenefeld began his tour with the Navy.

Mr. Huenefeld, 69, is now the post commander of VFW Post 764 in McMurray, which raised more than $170,000 to help build the new home.

Today, Mr. Huenefeld, the Siller family, the Vitales and others will gather to celebrate the unveiling of the Vitales’ new home in the Venetia area of Peters. The “smart home” is outfitted with technology to allow Mr. Vitale a degree of independence he has not known since his injury. Appliances will be set up to lower to his level, and touch technology such as that on an iPad will allow him to adjust temperature, change the TV channel, turn on the lights and more.

Mr. Huenefeld first heard of Mr. Vitale when his wife’s mother sent an email two years ago describing Mr. Vitale’s situation and seeking help for her son-in-law. “This is what we’re about. So stepping in and helping out, it was no question there,” said Mr. Huenefeld. His VFW Post began conducting fundraisers to help the family with expenses related to Mr. Vitale’s care.

Soon, the family learned the couple had made it to the top of the waiting list for Tunnel to Towers, and so began the massive fundraising effort to build the home, which cost about half a million dollars.

“This was the first time we’‍ve done something this large,” said Mr. Huenefeld, who has been a VFW member since 1992. “To see the whole thing come together, it’s just been phenomenal.” The VFW raised money through a walk, a golf outing and wrestling tournaments, among other activities.

“These folks were killing themselves to raise money for Doug,” said John Hodge, Stephen Siller’‍s cousin and the vice president of operations for Tunnel to Towers.

“It’s very overwhelming,” said Ms. Vitale, 28, who married her husband in 2010. “Without all of this, I don’‍t even know what we’d be doing or what we even could do.”

The Vitale home will be the Tunnel to Towers Foundation’‍s 10th home for a wounded veteran and the fifth unveiled this week. The Vitales were chosen for the special date of July Fourth because of the tremendous show of support from the Pittsburgh region, Mr. Hodge said.

He noted the work of Mr. Huenefeld’s VFW, the support of local sports teams — particularly the Steelers — and the surprisingly large turnout for a benefit concert by Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump” and started a foundation to serve wounded veterans.

“We are warmly received, and there is always tremendous community participation wherever we go, but Pittsburgh really took it to a whole new level,” said Mr. Hodge. “It’‍s just incredible.”

Frank Siller, chairman and CEO of Tunnel to Towers and one of Stephen Siller’s older brothers, said the foundation will continue its service to wounded veterans because of the support from communities such as Pittsburgh.

With each day, more companies and communities are stepping up to help out. “America, if they know, they’‍ll do,” he said.

When the sun sets on this Independence Day, Tunnel to Towers will continue its building projects across the country. The Vitales finally will have the independence they have long craved to go fishing, watch movies and continue with the long road of recovery. They will be independent but not alone.

“We’re looking to see who we can help,” but one thing remains certain: “We’‍ll be keeping an eye on Doug and Alexis.” said Mr. Huenefeld of future projects.

Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1504 or on Twitter @MatthewNussbaum.

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