Doug and Lex. Many say they never saw a couple more in love. Ever. Doug “the Lion” Vitale, lost both of his legs and suffered sever brain damage after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan. A young U.S Marine, built like an ox, charming, funny, and passionate. His wife, the smart, beautiful, courageous, and devoted Alexis, my cousin.
Their story is one of unprecedented courage, compassion, and love. It has sprouted from his service, his tragic accident, his family, his community and ultimately the American spirit. This story has changed my life as well as any one else who has been touched by it.
Doug was deployed to Afghanistan with the US Marines in July of 20011, soon after their one year anniversary. On September 25 th, a little over 2 months after he arrived, after many of his patrol had passed by safely, he stepped on a roadside improvised explosive device, instantly changing his life forever.
The Witch: The War in Afghanistan
Doug was deployed as part of the War in Afghanistan, started in 2001, after the attacks on the twin towers in New York City, to dismantle Al-Queda and the Taliban, a.k.a “the war on terrorism”.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when meeting Doug and seeing my cousin Alexis for the first time since the accident. I am ashamed to say that for the last couple of years I have subconsciously tuned it out, looked the other way, unwilling to fully embrace the severity of the situation, in hopes of avoiding feeling anything. For those that know me, I can be quite emotional, and this felt beyond my capacity. Being thousands of miles away made it easy to stay in fairy foo foo land. My own opinions and feelings towards the war and our involvement are intense. So much so that I gave up maintaining them after leaving the US in 2007, six years after the US invaded Afghanistan. I totally detached myself. Doug’s accident has brought the reality of the war into our families heart. And while visiting them in Pennsylvania, during Doug’s homecoming, it was due time to re-evaluate my feelings and to face the truth.
The war in Afghanistan (as well as Iraq), I just didn’t get it. I was hearing mixed messages and conflicting attitudes about it. Never ending excuses for why the US was sending all these young men and women across the oceans to “protect our freedom” and to “save us from the Taliban/Al Queda/ terrorists”. It was about retribution, about saving them, saving ourselves, about finding Osama, and constantly about freedom. Pie charts, diagrams, graphs, maps, images of the war were at one point abound on the news. Too many things swirled around that it was hard to latch on to anything substantial and slowly we all just started accepting it.
From my limited perception, the results were not what we had hoped for. It looked like confusion, chaos, and there was no end in site. There was no quantitative evidence that things were going well. It seemed as though we were aggravating a hornets nest and our troops were returning home… unhappy, discouraged and torn apart. Men like Doug, only a few months before, over six feet tall with an entire life ahead of them, were coming home…changed men. I have a new appreciation for how brave our service men and women are, they risk their lives to protect what they believe is our freedom.
As part of our around the world tour, visiting my Italian family in Pennsylvania was a must. We decided to head to PA specifically for this past week. When Doug would finally return to his hometown and be honored for his service. After we first arrived and we were sitting around discussing the accident, Doug, and Lex… my eyes welled up with tears instantly. The common factors that everyone would discuss were that a) Doug, has improved… so much so that there is vibrant emotion in his face b) that Lex is a hero, worthy of a medal of honor herself for the way she has stood by her husband and supported him, willingly and happily, the way she treats him like nothing is different… and c) that Doug and Lex’s families, along with the city of Pittsburg has lifted them up and supported them in a way unprecedented and historical. This past week in Pittsburg PA, we had the honor of participating in and witnessing this support in a first hand way, it was truly a magical and life changing American experience.
The truth is that Doug was very seriously changed by his injuries sustained in Afghanistan. Ghastly so. He suffered amputations of both of legs due to a substantial loss of blood, he suffered two strokes that caused sever brain damage. “Doug was left unable to speak or effectively communicate and unable to move his body appropriately, But his sense of spirit soars on. His sense of humor is right where he left it and he understands much of what is going on around him”. *Lt. Dan Band’s Website. Still, it is heart breaking to see him. The way that his family and his community has decided to step up and support him and his wife Lex is truly remarkable. They called him Doug “the Lion” Vitale because of his courage, strength, and power before the accident, and they still do.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to the Towers Foundation and The Lt. Dan Band, lead by Gary Sinise, (Lt. Dan from Forest Gump), united to form a coalition devoted to raising enough money to build a high technology smart home for Doug, who is in need of extra home living support. The smart home will be complete with tracks on the ceiling to help carry Doug from different points in the house, easing the work load for Lex immensely, an art room for Doug to paint to his hearts desire, and wide open doorways to allow him to move freely with his wheelchair. So much of the project has been developed, implemented, and donated by so many different members of the community that the thanks needed are unceasing. On Friday there was a concert held here in Pittsburg, starring The Lt. Dan Band and Doug, with the proceeds from the show and preceding activities devoted with the goal of raising $500,000 USD. For the last week Doug and Lex have been honored and supported in so many incredible ways.
It began with his homecoming parade with motorcycle riders, fellow soldiers, and hundreds of local supporters welcoming him. Through out the week he got to hang out with the Pirates, the Steelers, his family and friends. On Thursday at the VFW in Peters Township, an American patriot by the name of Scott LoBaido dedicated a large American flag painting he did on the side of the building to Doug, a small token of our countries appreciation for the sacrifices made during his service in Afghanistan. It was here that I met Doug for the first time. In his face, his emotions, his expressions lies a peaceful Lion. I felt a powerful affinity for him instantly. Looking into his big beautiful brown eyes, it’s as if he can see right into you. His smile. The most genuine and real smile you can ever hope to see. While witnessing his interactions with his best friend Brian, it becomes evident the kind of man that Doug is. It brings a smile and a warmness to the heart.
Friday night was the big show. It was sold out and people turned out in droves to support him. As Doug was wheeled out the audience erupted in applause and I could not restrain the tears. The band was incredible, it was fun, there was dancing. At the end of the show, Lex and Doug were honored and presented with checks from the Miller Family, The VFW, and more. They have earned well over the intended amount and the evening proved to be one of the most overwhelming and moving experiences of my life. Seeing Doug on stage, with his smile, sitting next to his wife, and his parents, Gary Sinise and fellow soldiers… recognizing that he was being held up by those around him, with thousands of members of his community in front of him…holding up lit candles… cheering him on, truly incredible.
It is my belief and guess, that Doug sees more, and understands more about life and the human experience now, then any of us could begin to comprehend. With the combined experience of being in Afghanistan, seeing what he saw, experiencing the trauma of the accident, the dramatic shift in his physical form, and then the lack of his ability to communicate… it is all fertilizer for growth. If pain is the foundation for growth, then there is no doubt that Doug is now one super advanced human being.
What is perhaps most incredible is how his experience has changed others, in both monumental ways, and small. On a micro level, he has brought the awareness and realization home, that what is going on “over there” is effecting us “over here” in profound ways. A reminder that the war in Afghanistan is still “on” though it often gets swept under the rug. Doug’s trauma and the awareness it has provided has given his family, friends, and the citizens of Pittsburg an opportunity to stand up and support him. Doug, a fellow man who was brave enough to serve for a government he trusted and a country he loves.
Doug’s family and friends have been changed in huge ways. Seeing the spirit of Doug, and the supreme surviver he is serves as proof that God is present in his life in the biggest of ways. And Alexis… has shown her true colors as an angel. Deserving of the highest honor for supporting him with devotion and courage unlimited.
So… how has meeting Doug, and seeing the American Spirit in full swing changed my heart? Well… it has brought me back to a place of TRUST. If Doug was brave enough and strong enough to trust, then I can be too.
I have come to the place where, because I am American, and because I love the United States for what it fundamentally stands for, I have to trust it. Trust that the people in charge know more then I do and will do what they think is best for our country and the world. What do I know about foreign diplomacy? Not much.
However… I do know that there is a right time and a wrong time to be involved. A right place and a wrong place to send our troops. A right place and a wrong place to accept casualties both military and civilian. There are right reasons and wrong reasons to get involved. It is a fact that there are only limited factors and quantities of information that lead governments to their ultimate decisions.
In 2001, before we engaged, we would hope that the US took each question in turn. Is it the right time? The right place? The right reason? We would hope they answered an unwavering yes to each and next, with out hesitating and with deliberate and calculated execution began the operations. We would hope that the US government saw that the sacrifices to come would lead to something positive. That the injuries incurred by Doug were for the greater good. It seems hard to believe.
This is where I always end up. Why? Was it worth it? And again… why? These are the similar sentiments of dissatisfaction and wonder that plagued our country after Vietnam, when broken soldiers returned home. What has been evident by watching the activities here in Pittsburg this past week, is the way that we treat our veterans once returning home from a war that, even though we may not understand it, we appreciate their service. Our feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about the war do not need to impact the way we treat the men and women who serve. It is IMPOSSIBLE to say one way or the other what a country should or should not be doing based on the information we have.
It is possible however to trust in its authority and to stand by those who risk so much. I love the United States, I love Doug “the Lion” Vitale, I love my family, and I love the American Spirit that has been so vibrant here in Pennsylvania this past week, so yes… I can trust.
If you are interested in making a donation to Doug, please visit
http://www.ourbravest.org and donate to Doug Vitale.
For more information on these organizations… visit