Most 8-year-old kids don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. That wasn’t the case with Douglas F. Cianchetta. At that age, he was taken to a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, to witness the christening of a ship—a guided missile destroyer named after his grandfather’s cousin, Donald Cook. That was the first time the 8-year-old native of New York saw a United States Marine. From that point, Cianchetta knew that he wanted to be a “Devil Dog.”
“The moment I graduated from high school, I went to boot camp,” he said.
Cianchetta attended recruit training in June 2005 and then on to the Infantry Training Battalion course to become an infantryman. “I didn’t want to do anything but infantry,” Cianchetta said.
Three years later, Corporal Cianchetta was a fire team leader with the Marine 24th Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines Alpha Company, leading a group of Marines in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. After a helicopter insert into an Afghan village to search for weapons, his team took on small arms and automatic weapons fire and came across a weapons cache where the pointman discovered a bag containing purple powder. Cianchetta took the bag and ordered his team back while he inspected it. “It was booby trapped with an IED [improvised explosive device] that lit me on fire,” he said.
His arms, sides, back and legs were burned—in all, 48 percent of his body had been incinerated. Cianchetta was medically evacuated to San Antonio where he spent 9 months as a patient at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. For almost 2 years after being discharged from the Burn Center, he spent his time rehabilitating and undergoing reconstructive surgeries as an outpatient. His goal was to recover and stay on active duty as an infantryman.
That didn’t happen. During a medical board brief to determine whether Cianchetta could stay in active duty as an infantryman, Burn Center Physician’s Assistant, Charles “Kelley” Thompson, explained his options now that his right pinky had been amputated and the limitations burn scars have on a body.
“I was given the option of staying in, but not as an infantryman,” said Cianchetta. “It was a very difficult decision, but I felt that I had to leave because at that point I didn’t feel that I was in the best shape to give 100 percent to the Corps. I was still recovering, and it was going to be a long road before I returned to the infantry. I didn’t want to do anything but infantry, so I decided to leave.”
During the same brief, Thompson asked Cianchetta what he wanted to do when he got out. “I want to be a policeman,” he said.
“I told him that he may want to reconsider that career because it could be very difficult to achieve,” said Thompson, who spent several years in law enforcement.
Persistent on setting a goal, Cianchett told Thompson that he was going to do it.
Cinachetta credits his determination to the training he received while on active duty and the people he has surrounded himself with. “My wife has been a big inspiration for me from the day I met her,” he said.
The road to the couple’s encounter had been paved long before they met. While an outpatient, Cianchetta and other wounded warriors were invited on a hunting trip in West Texas at the ranch of Charles Lackey where he met Lackey’s sons, Craig and Brad. He and Craig hit it off and became best friends. When Cianchetta moved back to New York in 2010, the economy was in shambles and hundreds of NYPD police officers were being laid-off. The prospect of being on the NYPD was slim.
So after 5 months of being home and before pursuing his goal of becoming a police officer, Cianchetta decided to go on a road trip to visit Marines from his unit. The trip took him to Virginia, Florida and Alabama and ultimately ended in San Antonio with a visit to the Lackeys’ ranch. That’s when he decided to stay in Texas.
“I told him [Craig] that I did not want to go back home,” he said. “Craig told me to stay with them until I figured out what I was going to do.”
As a public works director, the elder Lackey knew about the Alamo Area Regional Law Enforcement Academy. Cianchetta applied for and was accepted to attend the academy and began training in January 2011. While waiting for the training to commence, Cianchetta went out with a group of hunters on the Lackey’s ranch. While on that hunting excursion, one of the hunters suddenly fell ill and died. It was at his funeral where he met Hannah Thompson.
“I saw her sitting alone, and I started talking to her,” said Cianchetta. “I immediately felt something that I had never felt before in my life.”
“It was interesting,” said Hannah. “I knew something significant had just happened.”
“We like to say that it was the end of one life and the beginning of another,” said Cianchetta.
Hannah said that her best friend’s father, James, was a very charismatic person and would approve of their encounter. “He would have loved it,” she said.
A few days later, the couple got together to go out on their first date. “I went to her house to pick her up and meet her parents.”
The first thing he heard when he got to the front door was, “Corporal Cianchetta!” It was Thompson, the Burn Center physician’s assistant who had cared for him and briefed him on his medical board.
When asked what it was like seeing Thompson again, Cianchetta said, “It was breathtaking. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say.
”First of all, he’s not very friendly looking and he’s a big man. It wasn’t fun.”
It’s not like they hadn’t talked before. Thompson had been at his bedside countless times talking to him about the type of treatment or medications he needed. But this time it was different. It was no longer professional; it was on a personal level. The two headed off to a room where they talked for the next two-and-a-half hours and got caught up.
“I took my shoes off and got comfortable on the couch with my mom,” said Hannah. She knew it was going to be a while before they went out on their date.
“He [Thompson] was supportive of our relationship from the start,” said Cianchetta.
Life was good for him, he was about to start training at the police academy, and he was in love.
After a few months of dating, the peace officer trainee proposed. “At first, he [Thompson] told me no.”
His persistence paid off. The couple married in April 2012 and have a two-and-a-half month old baby girl.
“Life is great,” said Hannah. “I’m very happy and I couldn’t imagine anything different.”
Cianchetta achieved another one of his goals when he was hired as a patrolman in October 2011 with the Windcrest Police Department, a suburb of San Antonio. “I am so grateful to the Windcrest Police Department for giving me this opportunity despite my injuries,” he said.
“The Corps taught me from day one to never quit, to always prosper, and to always do your best regardless of your limitations,” he said.
The burn scars will always remind him that he can accomplish what he sets out to do he just has to push himself a little more. And that’s the message that he wants told.
“We all have the same opportunities, but not everyone takes advantage of them,” he said. “I know of Marines with amputations, but they don’t allow them to be disabilities. They go on with life and don’t let anything stop them.”
Since the age of 8, Cianchetta has known what he wants and he’s not remotely close to being done.
“The next set of goals that I have is to be a good husband and to give my family everything that I possibly can,” he said. “The future looks great. I’m very happy. I’m blessed to have all this, I really am.”BACK TO USAISR NEWS