To the U.S. Army, he was Staff Sgt. Thomas E. Vitagliano of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. To his family, his friends and his fiancee, he was Tommy. To military buddies like Chris Demenski, he was Vito. And to Demenski’s two-year-old daughter Shelby Lynne Demenski, he had another name — “Uncle Vito.” Shelby Lynne still wants to know when Uncle Vito is going to visit again.
The 33 year-old Vitagliano, a native of Orange and West Haven, was killed Jan. 17 when a vehicle-borne bomb detonated near his position in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. He was the war’s 23rd casualty from Connecticut.
Since news of his death reached the New Haven area last week, media outlets have recounted stories of a dedicated and brave soldier. But family and friends, such as Chris Demenski and his daughter, prefer to remember the compassionate man they knew in peacetime.
Demenski met Vitagliano in the Marines after the Persian Gulf War, and the two were fast friends ever since. Years later, Vitagliano even served as best man in Demenski’s wedding. Reminiscing, Demenski praised Vitagliano as a fine warrior and comrade over years of service. The man he remembers best, however, was not Vitagliano the soldier, but a “gentle giant” who loved his family, adored children and lit up every room he entered.
“We used to joke with Vito, saying he was always too soft,” Demenski said. “You know the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ‘Kindergarten Cop’? We used to call him the Kindergarten Marine because he was like a big teddy bear.”
Vitagliano’s teddy-bear persona was most apparent around children, Demenski said. The same man who did reconnaissance for the Marines and later patrolled the city of Ar Ramadi enjoyed few things more than getting a laugh out of the children at Demenski’s house in Chicago: walking like a duck to get a giggle, chasing geese with them and giving them rides on his back.
His facility with children was a wonder to behold, Demenski said.
“As soon as Vito would walk into a room — we called it ‘the glow,'” he said. “Within almost ten seconds, all the children in the room would be around him.”
H. John Hoffman, a deacon at Holy Infant Church in Orange and the Vitagliano family’s spokesman, said he remembers that glow. Even in dark times, the man he knew as Tommy could find a way to lighten the mood.
“Tommy is nothing but fun,” Hoffman said, slipping back and forth between past and present tense. “He brings energy into the room when he walks in. He was always joking around.”
Hoffman said Vitagliano was as committed to his family as he was to his country. He enlisted in the Marines as soon as he could — at just 17 — and joined the Army in the mid-’90s. But every time he could, he went straight home to see his family, making time to attend the baptisms of his sister’s four children.
“His family was everything to him,” Hoffman said. “Whenever Tommy had leave, he’d be right here; he always found a way to get home.”
Vitagliano did not like to talk about what he did in the military. Instead, he would discuss how much he felt at home within its ranks, Hoffman said. To him, Hoffman said, the military was a second family.
Vitagliano’s first family agrees. To them, he was a man with two great passions and was deeply committed to each.
In a prepared statement released through Hoffman, the family said, “Tommy’s life revolved around family, his family here at home, and his military family with which he served and shared the bonds of family.”
One person, however, never had the chance to share the bonds of family with Vitagliano. Nerina Giolli was Vitagliano’s fiancZ
“Tommy is my best friend — and I knew from when we first met that we would be together forever,” she said in a statement released by friends. “We had so many plans, and now he will be treasured in my heart always.”
Demenski would have been Vitagliano’s best man at that wedding, but now he intends to serve his friend in a different way: by helping to preserve the memory of Vitagliano beyond his distinguished military career.
“Everybody’s got the military photos, but I’m trying to get the rest,” he said. “They always talk about him being a great warrior. He was — he was the best. But they don’t see him at my house in Chicago, playing with the kids.”