When U.S. soldiers are wounded in combat, their lives are forever changed, says Vito Anthony Pampalona, a longtime real estate broker and owner of Vito Anthony Homes in Rochester, Mich.
Whether they face a physical wound—such as loss of limbs or vision—or suffer from post-traumatic stress, virtually all of them face the difficult task of rebuilding their life as a civilian.
Pampalona, a Vietnam War veteran, has spent the past eight years raising money—nearly $500,000 in total—and giving his time to show gratitude to thousands of patients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Although the hospital closed in September, Pampalona’s efforts will continue.
“When I returned home from Vietnam, people looked at veterans in an unappreciative light. They were very negative toward us,” Pampalona says. “I told myself that if we ever had another war, I was going to make sure our young people felt welcome and appreciated for the sacrifices they’d made.”
“I try to fill the void in what the government is providing,” he says.
Marine Corps Sgt. Tim Lang came home from Iraq with a fractured vertebrae and a missing right leg. He met Pampalona in 2007 while recovering at Walter Reed. “He treated me like I was a piece of gold,” says Lang, 26, who’s now retired from the military and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The generosity has translated into a quality-of-life improvement for soldiers and a morale booster for staff and patients alike, says Kate Yancosek, a U.S. Army major and formerly an occupational therapist stationed at Walter Reed, who fielded Pampalona’s first requests to help. “When Vito would call the clinic to ensure that the latest package had arrived,” Yancosek recalls, “we would pass the phone around taking turns talking with him.”
After about a year of sending packages, Pampalona worked with hospital staff to plan what has become his signature event, Uncle Vito’s Christmas Party. “He left no detail unattended,” Yancosek says of the first party in 2003. Since then, the event—with pizza, raffles, and gifts such as watches and electric toothbrushes—has doubled in size and now serves more 200 soldiers and family.
“You could tell he spent some money—and put his heart in it too,” says Lang, who recalls receiving a Detroit Pistons T-shirt, athletic shorts, CDs, videos, and a nice backpack at his first Christmas party hosted by Pampalona. “Everything in the bag was something we absolutely loved.”
Pampalona, who flies into town with his wife for the event, makes sure that attending spouses and staff get presents, too. “For those four or five hours, everyone feels normal,” he says of the annual party. “If I can make them smile for one hour or one day, that’s worth more to me than anything.”
No longer relying solely on out-of-pocket dollars for the Christmas party and other efforts, as he did in the beginning, Pampalona has teamed up with the Yellow Ribbon Fund Inc., an organization in Bethesda, Md., of which he’s a founding board member. Most recently, Pampalona raised more than $73,000 for the Annual Yellow Ribbon Fund Golf Outing last summer at a country club in Rochester, Mich.
“Vito doesn’t do anything halfway,” says Robert Taylor, a practitioner with Coldwell Banker Weir Manuel in Birmingham, Mich., who was hired into real estate by Pampalona in 1974. “Everything he does, he does to the best of his ability. For him, 100 percent is standard operating procedure.”
In September, the Walter Reed hospital was combined with Bethesda National Naval Medical Center to create the U.S. military’s largest medical facility—and Pampalona looks forward to serving more military veterans there. “They are so brave and dedicated, and they’re working hard to get on with their lives,” Pampalona says of the men and woman recovering at the newly created Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Being a part of that is very special for me.”
Pampalona now has even more soldiers who will be calling him “Uncle Vito.” And that’s something he couldn’t be happier about