HUDSON — Vietnam War veteran Frank Romeo, 70, is on a 750-mile walk across New York state to bring awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact, particularly on veterans. Wednesday morning he stopped at Hudson High School to share his experiences with the students.
On display during the presentation, entitled “The Art of War,” were reproductions of paintings Romeo and other veterans with PTSD created as an outlet and a way to illustrate their feelings.
Romeo said he joined the U.S. Army immediately after high school graduation and following training was sent to Vietnam “during the bloodiest fighting of the war” — and fought in the Tet Offensive, in which the U.S. lost 5,000 American soldiers in a single month. At one point, Romeo was separated from his unit and tried to elude the enemy and stay alive. He was shot multiple times, including in the face, leg and back.
“This was the start of my personal trauma,” Romeo said.
His treatment involved regular doses of morphine, a powerful pain-killer, which led to drug problems, he said.
When he returned stateside, Romeo found a far different country than the one he left.
“America had changed while I was away,” he said. “The anti-war movement was growing and there were a lot of people protesting the war. I left the hospital in my uniform after a year of being in the hospital, and the anti-war protesters that wanted to stop the war spit on me. That was the way soldiers were treated in the 1960s and early ’70s.”
In the hospital, Romeo received regular doses of morphine, and he said he developed a drug and alcohol problem. While in the military he said he “showed signs of bad behavior” and was sent to a military prison in New Jersey. He received a dishonorable discharge, which was later lifted.
At that point, Romeo had post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was the beginning of a lifelong challenge.
The war would affect Romeo’s life years after he left the battlefield, not only with PTSD, but it was later found that Romeo had been exposed to Agent Orange. The highly toxic herbicide was used by the U.S. military against the Vietnamese, but American soldiers were also contaminated. Agent Orange exposure led to birth defects in Romeo’s children.
All this contributed to Romeo’s PTSD. To this day, he suffers from recurring nightmares.
Romeo said if there is one message the students should take away from his presentation, it is that many people who have undergone trauma of any kind develop PTSD, and that it is important to speak with someone about their feelings. For some veterans with PTSD, it has led to suicide or drug or alcohol abuse. Contemporary veterans are committing suicide “at a rate of 22 a day,” he said.
Romeo has turned his own feelings of trauma into a creative outlet.
“I thought about all of my experiences and I began to doodle. I began to create pictures. The motion of my hand began to get my story out and I began to make art,” Romeo said.
He found that other veterans with PTSD also used art as a stress outlet, and he started collecting their works and traveling around the country. Several of those pieces were on display at the Hudson presentation.
“We were documenting a generation of men who were shunned by society,” he said. “We were telling the story of PTSD.”
One of the paintings on display portrayed the feelings of a former soldier who had a very specific job, and its impact on his later life.
“Somebody has to make sure all the body parts go in the right bag,” Romeo said. “This is one of the ugly sides of war no one wants to talk about. One day he turned over a dead soldier lying on his stomach and the soldier had died looking at his daughter’s picture.”
Another painting showed the artist’s traumatic reaction to the war many years after its conclusion.
“Sometimes it’s easier to be the dead person than the one who has to pick up the pieces and move on,” Romeo said.
He is bringing his story around the country, to schools, American Legion halls, wherever people will listen, he said. Mental illness is an important issue that continues to have a stigma attached to it, Romeo said, but a light has to be shined on it for people to heal.
“This was incredibly relevant and it came from the heart,” Principal Antonio Abitabile said following the presentation. “It was very meaningful to the students and families. He talked about an issue that is often overlooked, so I am glad he is bringing PTSD within the military into the public.”
Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, attended the presentation and said Romeo had many valuable messages to share with the students.
“It’s important to understand service and the importance of service,” Barrett said in an interview prior to Romeo’s presentation. “It’s important to understand mental health issues. There is way too much stigma attached to mental health in this country and in the world, and I think Frank will show the face of that in a way that will hopefully make young people understand that it is something that is more common and needs to be addressed in a holistic way.”
Bob Honey, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, has been providing logistical support for Romeo as he makes his way across New York state. He said Romeo’s message is a valuable one.
“First and foremost, it is important to bring awareness to PTSD and the problems our veterans are suffering with, including veterans’ homelessness and suicide, and not being able to take advantage of the benefits that are being given by the government during their active duty,” Honey said. “We need to educate the younger generation about the potential effects of combat and what the soldiers go through.”
Several students in the audience have signed up to join the various branches of the military and found the talk valuable.
Kyle Ublacker is a senior who will attend the U.S. Air Force Academy after graduation.
“I signed up to honor my grandfather, and growing up in the age of 9/11 I wanted to do something for my country and help protect it,” Ublacker said, adding that he will take Romeo’s talk with him. “I will definitely hold this in my heart going into the service and know to look out for my friends, and for myself. I don’t want to fall into that trap and I don’t want anyone else falling into it.”
Rowan Meyers, a senior, joined the U.S. Army.
“I joined to not only protect my country but to protect my loved ones and the people so they can live life without being threatened,” Meyers said. “PTSD is a thing that is not too talked about and it should be brought up and spoken about more for the people who are really suffering from it.”