WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Aug. 6, 2007) - About 50 Family members, friends and fellow Soldiers of Cpl. Angelo J. Vaccaro, an Army medic killed in Afghanistan, gathered for a dedication ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here Aug. 2, as "Building 38" was renamed "Vaccaro Hall."
The hall will serve as the headquarters for the new Warrior Transition Brigade, a center aimed at improving the Army outpatient-care system, which was criticized for various shortcomings earlier this year. Cpl. Vaccaro, who struggled to overcome his own flaws, and the building named in his honor, are both stories of redemption, a general said.
"I'm very grateful that the leaders of the Warrior Transition Brigade named their headquarters after this great Army combat medic," Army Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, commander of North Atlantic Regional Medical Command and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, told audience members.
"The fact that we've taken a building that was part of this historic campus now 100 years old ... and rejuvenated it and reapplied it toward this new mission of the warrior-transition unit really is the embodiment of Angelo Vaccaro, a man who put his life back together and became a combat medic and found meaning," he said.
"Like Cpl. Vaccaro, this institution is on a journey of redemption to reaffirm its service to the nation and to the Army, to warriors that have been wounded or ill or have been injured in service to their nation," Maj. Gen. Schoomaker said. "I really felt Angelo's pride, his spirit here in this place."
Cpl. Vaccaro, who died Oct. 3 while attempting to evacuate casualties during combat in Afghanistan, is the first servicemember to earn two Silver Star Medals in the global terror war. A plaque adjacent to Vaccaro Hall's front door was unveiled yesterday. It bears an embossed picture of the Soldier's face and describes his final courageous moments.
"On October 3rd, 2006, Cpl. Vaccaro learned that his platoon was involved in direct fire engagement with enemy forces and he volunteered to conduct an extremely dangerous ground extraction," the plaque states. "Cpl. Vaccaro was struck by enemy fire and instantly killed while attempting to evacuate casualties."
Several years ago, a poignant ceremony like yesterday's, with general officers praising a Soldier who died honorably doing what he loved, would have been impossible for the Cpl. Vaccaro family to imagine.
Cpl. Angelo Vaccaro's older brother Ray described how the military transformed Angelo from a lost youth into a passionate combat medic. His back against a wall in the Vaccaro Hall reception room, Ray balanced his squirming 9-month old daughter, Ava, on his leg while he described his and Angelo's upbringing.
"My brother got into some bad stuff," Ray remembered. "Drugs, crime, hanging out with the wrong people."
As a young man in Bronx, N.Y., Angelo had led a misdirected life, with bad influences, drug use and brushes with the law. The two brothers were best friends, Ray said, but their lives took divergent paths once the family moved from the bustling New York City borough to small-town Deltona, Fla.
To earn tuition for the college degree Ray dreamed of, he enlisted in the Army, serving from 1995 to 1998. Meanwhile, Angelo continued a self-destructive lifestyle.
"When Angelo was in his bad times, I asked him, 'Is this how you want to be forever''" Ray recalled. "And he said, 'No.'"
Ray introduced his younger brother to an Army recruiter, and Angelo enlisted as a combat medic in 2004 after being granted a waiver. Potential recruits may be barred from joining the military due to stringent moral requirements, but on a case-by-case basis the services offer waivers to a small percentage of those who would otherwise be disqualified.
Cpl. Vaccaro was humble when discussing his Army achievements, Ray said. But as a former member of the Boys and Girls Club, Cpl. Vaccaro took pride in treating local children's ailments while serving as a combat medic in Afghanistan.
"Angelo was proud of helping children, sewing cuts on theirs hands and feet, or giving them bandages," he said. "He always had a love for kids, and he was so proud of that."
Ray said he wants his daughter, who was born one month after Angelo died, to know everything about her uncle, who matured from a community outcast to a community pillar.
"He did not get to meet her, but she hears all about him all the time. She gets to hold his medals and look at pictures of him," he said. "I want her to know everything, from the bad to the good to the even better.
"I want her to know who her uncle was to keep his spirit alive."
(John J. Kruzel writes for the American Forces Press Service.)