When the film "Forrest Gump" was released in 1994, U.S. Marine Sgt. Doug Vitale was 7 years old. He couldn't possibly have realized the impact that one of its most memorable characters would later have on his life.
Actor Gary Sinise, in his role as Army platoon leader Lt. Dan Taylor, played an embittered double amputee wounded in the Vietnam War. He eventually has an epiphany during a hurricane that makes him realize life isn't so bad, even without the use of his legs. The character was unforgettable and earned Mr. Sinise an Academy Award nomination.
It was the experience of playing Lt. Dan that offered Mr. Sinise his first glimpse into the world of veteran amputees and the struggles they contend with each day.
Sgt. Vitale coming home
U.S. Marine Sgt. Doug Vitale will be home Saturday to kick off a weeklong celebration that will culminate in a benefit concert by actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band on Aug. 9 at Stage AE.
Sgt. Vitale and his wife, Alexis, will be back in Pittsburgh for the first time since he was injured in September 2011 in Afghanistan.
After spending nearly two years at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Program in Tampa, Fla., for treatment of injuries he suffered when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, Sgt. Vitale will receive a hero's welcome and police escort from Allegheny Airport at 1:30 Saturday afternoon.
The motorcade will proceed to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 764 on Valleybrook Road in Peters, where the public is invited to attend a community ceremony and formal welcome home beginning at 2:45 p.m. Parking will be available at the nearby municipal building and middle school.
Sgt. Vitale's return will set off a full week of celebrations to welcome him back to the Pittsburgh area, including the dedication of an American flag mural, the unveiling of the Vitales' new smart home design and a thank you to Sgt. Vitale for his service from representatives of the Pirates and Steelers.
The week will wrap up Aug. 9 with the benefit concert, which is expected to sell out. Tickets can be purchased at www.operationdoug.com or 1-800-745-3000.
-- Janice Crompton
"When the opportunity came up to play a Vietnam vet character, I jumped at the chance," Mr. Sinise said during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I had a lot of compassion for what our veterans went through returning from war."
That compassion led the 58-year-old actor to create the Gary Sinise Foundation two years ago to help severely wounded veterans, such as Sgt. Vitale, get through daily struggles a little more easily.
"When we deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, I knew there was a role to play to help our active-duty folks get through the challenges they faced coming home from war," said Mr. Sinise, who said that he felt "compelled" to help.
In conjunction with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, Mr. Sinise's foundation has built 26 customized "smart homes" for amputees and their families through a project called Building for America's Bravest.
Sgt. Vitale, 26, will be one of those recipients, with a home soon to be constructed in Peters.
Operation Doug, the fundraising portion of the project, will include a concert at 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at Stage AE, featuring Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band and other musical acts as part of the group's Building for America's Bravest Tour 2013.
A 2005 graduate of Kiski Area High School, Sgt. Vitale enlisted in the Marines in 2007 after attending Slippery Rock University, where he met his wife, Alexis Abraham of Peters.
Sgt. Vitale's first two military assignments involved anti-terrorism efforts in Spain and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By July 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan, leaving his wife at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where she worked as an elementary school teacher.
"He was in the infantry," Mrs. Vitale, 27, said. "We knew in 2007 he would [eventually] be deployed in combat -- that's the job he signed up for."
Their lives changed forever on Sept. 25. 2011.
In one earth-shattering instant, Sgt. Vitale's world collapsed as quickly as the ground beneath his feet. He stepped on a modern-day land mine, an improvised explosive device -- commonly called an IED -- triggering an explosion that mangled his legs, while the blast sent his brain spiraling out of control.
He was leading his squad on patrol in Sangrin, Afghanistan, a former stronghold of the Taliban that was dangerous to navigate.
Sgt. Vitale's squad saved his life, treating his wounds as best they could and rushing him to a field hospital. He was airlifted to Germany, where doctors had to remove a large portion of his skull due to brain swelling. The trauma caused strokes on both sides of his brain, leaving him in a coma for weeks.
"I got a call in the middle of the day that he'd stepped on an IED and that both legs were amputated," Mrs. Vitale recalled. "That was all I knew for the first three days."
Five days after his injury, Sgt. Vitale was transferred to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where his wife got her first glimpse of him.
"... he looked better than I expected," she said. "I didn't see as much shrapnel as I thought I would. They prepare you for that. We knew his brain injury was pretty bad."
Her husband opened his eyes three weeks later and since that time, he has been undergoing rigorous therapy, which is now up to four hours a day.
The first order of business was to medically stabilize him, Mrs. Vitale said, then he was moved to the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Program for brain injury at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla., where the couple moved in November 2011.
Although his therapy has been going well, the home in Florida where the couple has been staying -- with Sgt. Vitale's parents, Dale and Becky Vitale of Vandergrift -- isn't customized for wheelchair access or Sgt. Vitale's needs.
That's where Mr. Sinise and the foundations come in.
The foundations will spend about $500,000 to build a smart home that is customized to Sgt. Vitale's every need, making it easier for him to do ordinary tasks -- such as showering and just washing his hands and brushing his teeth.
"I am very excited about it," Mrs. Vitale said. "It will give us more time, it will make things easier and we will get our own space back."
Sgt. Vitale is not able to speak, but he communicates through hand signals and gestures. Though his arm movement was affected by the brain injury, he recently regained some use of his left arm, making it easier to communicate.
"He understands everything so he reacts to everything," Mrs. Vitale said. "[The therapists] work with what they have and try to make it better."
U.S. Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely understands what that feels like.
"The therapy is so intense," said the 29-year-old from Lake Ozarks, Mo. "It's like being reborn. You have to learn to do everything again."
Cpl. Nicely lost both legs and both arms to a roadside IED while he was on foot patrol in Afghanistan. He is one of only three soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive as a quadruple amputee.
He received a smart home from Mr. Sinise's foundation in June 2012 and said it has made all the difference in the world.
"Getting the new house was one of the greatest days of my life besides my wedding day," he recalled. "It gave me back my independence."
In Cpl. Nicely's home, a central control system and iPad make it possible to turn on faucets and light fixtures with just a touch. Sinks and cabinets have been lowered to wheelchair height, and bathrooms have roll-in showers.
Cpl. Nicely said he and his wife found that getting around a regular house, through narrow hallways and tight passages, "was a nightmare." Going to the bathroom alone was all but impossible.
"They don't just make you a cookie-cutter home," he said of the design team that customizes each smart home. "They design it to meet each person's individual needs. This house pretty much caters to my every need."
Although the Vitales' home is still in the design phase -- Mrs. Vitale has been meeting with the design team -- the house likely will have an elevator, therapy room, front-load washer and dryer, intercom system and one-touch controls for lighting, blinds, heating and more.
"This house is going to be designed specifically for Doug and Alexis," said Chris Kuban, director of media relations for Tunnel to Towers.
Not all of the home's amenities will be strictly practical.
"Doug loves art," said Mr. Kuban, who said the house will be decorated with artwork to inspire Sgt. Vitale. "That's one of the things that makes him happy."
Mr. Kuban said it takes about eight months to build a smart home and he hopes to have the Vitales' home finished by spring.
"I think the house is going to amaze a lot of people when it's done," he said.
Mr. Sinise agrees.
"The house is a small thing we can do to give them an opportunity for a happy life," he said. "Alexis is a courageous woman. She is going to need some assistance, some help."
Although the life ahead of her isn't one she would have planned for herself, Mrs. Vitale said she never once thought of abandoning her husband.
"That was never an option," she said. "I didn't picture myself having to make a choice like that."
"She is one of the most inspiring people I've met on this journey," Mr. Kuban said of Sgt. Vitale's wife.
Mrs. Vitale's mother, Denise Abraham of Peters, said her daughter's courage doesn't surprise her.
"She has been pretty amazing," Mrs. Abraham said. "She has always been confident and tough. My husband and I are so proud of her."
"Doug Vitale and his wife Alexis are two people who have given a lot to this country," Mr. Sinise said. "This concert isn't about me -- it's about them."
Mr. Sinise plays bass guitar for the Lt. Dan Band and hopes the concert will go a long way toward raising the estimated $500,000 needed to complete the home. A benefit walk organized by Mrs. Abraham in addition to events and private fundraisers held by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 764 in Peters have raised more than $90,000 toward the goal.
"I do this because of my mission to raise money," Mr. Sinise said. "Anything that comes in supports the charity work."
The band plays about 40 concerts a year, all of which are fundraisers of some sort, including for the Building for America's Bravest tour. Mr. Sinise also has been active touring with the USO, prompting Mr. Kuban to call him "the modern-day Bob Hope."
Usually at this time of year, Mr. Sinise would begin filming for his role as Detective Mac Taylor on the CBS crime drama "CSI: NY." But since the series ended this year, his time is his own.
"Balancing the charity work and the TV show over the years has been a challenge," he said. "It was a great nine years. It was a great group to work with over the years."
The steady income allowed Mr. Sinise to participate in the smart-home project, along with other charitable endeavors. While Mr. Sinise said he has no firm plans for his acting future, he expects his career to have some "interesting new developments" soon.
In the meantime, he wants Pittsburghers to hear his message and come out to support Sgt. Vitale and his family.
"We want to pack the place," Mr. Sinise said. "I'm honored to be able to support them; I'm coming to Pittsburgh for them."
For tickets to the Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band benefit concert at 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at Stage AE on Pittsburgh's North Shore: www.garysinisefoundation.org or www.operationdoug.com or 1-800-745-3000. Tickets are $35 or $60 or for a VIP experience, $150. Doors open at 6 p.m.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.