Billy Orito is a typical 23 year old. He likes playing games, eating barbecue ribs, and looking at girls.
But there’s something that makes Billy a bit unique. Two years ago, he suffered a brain injury while participating in a boot camp training exercise at Fort Sill, OK. In an instant, his whole life changed. He was in a coma for six weeks. When he awoke, he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t walk. He could only eat through a tube. He dropped down to 87 pounds.
Billy was transferred to three different hospitals before coming to the in December 2010. He’s learned to talk again. He can eat on his own. He’s back up to 180 pounds. And he’s re-learning how to walk.
On Feb. 23, Billy and his parents, Donna and William Orito, were one of several families who enjoyed free dinners at Ruth’s Chris Steak House through Freedom Alliance, an educational and charitable organization that sponsors program activities aimed at supporting and honoring United States service members and their families.
“Getting out for an evening like this is so invaluable for these troops,” said Calvin Coolidge, executive director of Freedom Alliance. “This is really about them and our ability to say thank you on behalf of the American people.”
Freedom Alliance was founded in 1990 and is funded by private, voluntary contributions. Its mission is to advance the American heritage of freedom by honoring and encouraging military service, defending sovereignty and promoting a strong national defense.
The organization has four main program areas:
- Support Our Troops (which honors members of the Armed Forces and hosts events to express appreciation and recognize their service and provides financial assistance to troops and their families)
- Military Leadership Academy (which teaches students to become positive, productive citizens and leaders)
- Public Policy initiative (which teaches the public about the need to protect freedom)
- Scholarship Fund (which provides college scholarships to dependents of U.S. military personnel who have been killed or permanently disabled in missions or training accidents)
Freedom Alliance is based in northern Virginia and reaches out to different hospitals across the country to put on dinners similar to the one last week. This was the organization’s third annual dinner in Tampa for wounded service members and their families from the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. Haley is one of only five regional polytrauma centers in the country.
“We wanted to honor the men and women recovering here,” Coolidge said.
The Tampa dinner has taken place at Ruth’s Chris all three years.
“Every year when we do this, you’re just so inspired,” said Yadira Navarro, sales manager for Ruth’s Chris.
Across the room from the Orito family sat Mark, Suzanne and Andrew Eufrazio. Absent from their table was their veteran, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio, 21.
“We wish Nick could be here, but he’s still a little too fragile,” said Suzanne Eufrazio, Nicholas’ mother.
Nicholas, a Marine, was wounded by a grenade in Afghanistan in November 2010, his mother said. He came to Haley in May 2011.
The family lives in Plymouth, MA, and Mark, Nicholas’ father, took a leave of absence from work two months ago to be at the hospital full time. Suzanne and Andrew, Nicholas’ 15-year-old brother, visit at least once a month and spend a few days to a week in Tampa. The family said Nicholas has received “fantastic” care at Haley, and Nicholas’ injuries have inspired Andrew to become a neurosurgeon.
They said they were enjoying the dinner.
“It’s just a nice break from the hospital atmosphere,” Suzanne Eufrazio said.
Donna Orito cut up Billy’s steak for him.
“Thank you, Mom,” Billy said as she handed it back to him.
The family is from Las Vegas but is living in New Tampa while Billy receives physical and speech therapy at Haley three times a week. They said Billy gets good care at the hospital, but the temporary move has been an adjustment.
“We don’t like the humidity or the mosquitos,” William Orito said.
“Definitely,” Billy agreed. “I hate the mosquitos. They eat me alive.”
After Billy graduated from high school, he had a difficult time gathering money to pay for college and an even more difficult time finding a job.
“You wouldn’t believe there were no jobs in Vegas with all the hotels, but that’s how bad the economy was,” William Orito said.
So, Billy thought about going into the military and talked to a Navy recruiter. Once he realized there were more positions available with the Army, though, he enlisted. Not only would he be serving the country he loved, he would have a job and a way to go to school.
“Paying for college was another hardship that the military would have helped with,” Billy explained.
Now, Billy faces completely different hardships. When he’s not recovering at Haley, he’s trying to make friends.
“One of the hardest things is he has no friends here,” said Donna Orito, adding that the family doesn’t really know anyone aside from some family in Tarpon Springs and Port Charlotte.
She said the fact that Billy is now disabled makes meeting new people difficult.
“That and it’s hard to get a girlfriend,” Billy said.
“So tell them he’s available,” his dad joked.
“You’re not supposed to be so blunt, Dad,” Billy laughed.
The family talks about Billy’s struggles and his triumphs. He uses a wheelchair to get around, but he just re-learned how to ride a tricycle.
“I’m a big kid now,” Billy joked.
His rehabilitation his supposed to end in December. The family hopes he’ll be able to walk again by then.
Sometimes, he gets frustrated.
“I can’t say I don’t,” Billy admitted. “That would be a lie. Although, I’ve come to accept the fact that this is how things are, and they could be worse.”
How does he stay upbeat despite all he’s been through?
“You only live once,” he said, “so it’s better to keep a positive attitude.”