Almost 50 years ago, Frank Castellone, a member of the only Rhode Island National Guard unit to serve in Vietnam, arrived in Long Binh, 20 miles northwest of Saigon.
He’d been in country for about two months as part of the 107th Signal Corps when a buddy asked a visiting chaplain why a beautiful organ was sitting quiet at mass. My buddy Frank over there, said the soldier—he plays the organ.
When the chaplain asked the young Rhode Islander to be his assistant, “I figured that would be a good job,” said Castellone, now 73.
It was a heart-rending one that haunts him to this day, in which he took a helicopter into the field in the aftermath of a battle, holding the hands of mortally wounded soldiers in their last moments.
“It was a pretty traumatic time for me, to see guys dying and you can’t do anything for them,” he said last week, choking up as he recalled the young men crying for their mothers.
On November 11, Veterans Day, Castellone will be among the members of Chapter 21 of the Disabled Veterans of America (DAV) who will, for the seventh year, visit two nursing homes in Rhode Island to conduct a ceremony honoring the veterans in residence, presenting each with a plaque and an American flag.
“It does more for us than it does for them,” said Castellone.
Signs of trouble surfaced as soon as Castellone returned in 1969 from a year’s service in Vietnam, when his wife planned a big welcome-home party but he said “no, I gotta get out of here. My life spiraled down,” he said, recalling blackouts and sweats. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me for a good number of years. I didn’t want to be around people.”
Many years later, Castellone sought help from the Veterans Administration, and was diagnosed with PTSD. When Castellone requested an assistance dog and was told that Vietnam veterans weren’t eligible to receive them, it was like another slap in the face to a man who was among the generation often reviled for their service when they returned stateside.
But then a friend who served in Afghanistan told him about Heroes In Transition, which provides veterans with assistance dogs as part of its mission. Castellone named his Lab mix Perry, after a buddy, Ernie Perry, who didn’t make it back.
“She never leaves my side,” he said. “Her eyes are always on me. What else could I ask for?”
Castellone—who became known across Rhode Island as bandleader Frank Castle—still goes to counseling at the VA twice a month.
“We were spat upon,” he said. “We were called baby killers. We didn’t dare wear our uniform. With Afghanistan and Iraq, these kids come back and the public is more aware. If they got PTSD, imagine what guys in Vietnam went through?”
“Now, people understand more. The world has changed for the good.”