Since he left Buffalo on his 750-mile walk across New York State to raise awareness for veterans and PTSD, Bay Shore resident and Vietnam Veteran Frank Romeo and his ground crew have had endure single-digit temperatures, freezing rain, a snow storm, a leaky roof, and heatless nights in their RV.
And that’s only in the first 50 miles.
On March 1, the first day of his walk, Romeo was honored by the City of Buffalo and given a Proclamation from Erie County before he started off.
It was also his 70th birthday.
Romeo’s wife, Genie, helped him put on his backpack and kissed him goodbye on the city streets.
“I’m gonna miss you,” she said as they hugged.
Then he was off on his journey followed by his ground support team in an RV providing for his basic needs and helping to document the trek in words and film.
When he meets people, Romeo tells them:
“My name is Frank Romeo and I suffer mental illness,” or simply, “I suffer from PTSD.”
While Romeo is not ashamed to come out and tell people he never met before that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he also considers himself a survivor.
He survived death in the jungles of Vietnam and he’s sure he’ll survive this too.
Of course, his mission is different over 40 years later.
The trek across New York, called Walk with Frank, is his way of bringing attention to the plight of the American soldier.
On his journey he is trying to help drum up interest in the state’s education system for a Social Studies curriculum he helped create along with the Bay Shore School District called “The Experience of the American Soldier.”
The program was piloted in Bay Shore this school year.
The curriculum is the first of its kind and seeks to enlighten students on the men and women who fight in the wars we learn about in history and what they sacrifice in order to serve the country.
Battle scars are not just physical, and Romeo is making a case for teaching this in school.
On Feb. 28, the day before he left, Romeo spent a snowy night sleeping in a homeless shelter in Buffalo. He woke up contemplating those who slept there before him.
“I thought about them and their journey,” he said in a video blog he recorded from his room in a veteran’s homeless shelter.
He was on his own journey now, a physical walk that he hoped would symbolize the journey all soldiers with PTSD take. It’s hard, but he hopes they can survive as well.
By March 5, Frank was at North Tonawanda High School speaking to a packed house
“I spoke of my journey and of my trauma alluding to the fact that I have a mental disorder,” he said in his blog post that day.
He opened up his lecture with the words, “My name is Frank Romeo and I am a PTSD survivor.”
“I was very impressed with these high school students,” one of his support crew wrote in an update on Facebook. “They displayed so much respect and interest in what Frank was talking about. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium they were so engaged.”
By March 6 he had made it to Clarence, N.Y. He took Route 5 and according to his blog it was a mere 9 degrees. The next day was the first without snow, when they walked eight miles in 20-degree weather.
The journey is taxing but he’s still in great spirits.
““Personally I feel good,” Romeo said in a phone interview from the road. “It wears you out but you have to make an effort.”
In the town of Avon he stopped in at American Legion Post 294 where he discovered the Ladies Auxiliary prepping for an upcoming fundraiser for veterans. One of his support crew, Nadine Masiello, was walking with Frank that day and the women took them in to warm up.
On his journey, Romeo is always thinking about his message and whether it’s getting through to the people he meets.
In his blog he writes:
“As I spoke my mind raced ahead in several directions. I thought about the pain surrounding PTSD, my pain, and the feeling of helplessness, I thought about the feeling of suicide and reliving others of the burden of taking care of me, and I thought about an endless life of continuous struggle.
“They hear my words as I face them and look into their eyes. I always know they hear me but are they listening?”
A video from March 9 shows Romeo as a little blur on the horizon. He hobbles up a wintery road. He’s about to enter Lima, N.Y., and the cold is starting to wear on his team. It’s sunny out but the temperature is still only 19 degrees.
“We had no heat last night,” he says to the camera. “It got down to single digits. So it was really a rough night for all of us. Just huddled up inside our sleeping bags. It was very difficult.”
story continues below video
That night he was planning to stay in a shelter in Genesee County that the Western Coalition for the Homeless helped him secure.
On March 10, a video blog showed that despite the cold weather they had rain and a leak erupted in the RV — soaking some of Romeo stuff. A pot catches the water as it drips in.
This reminds Romeo of his support system.
In a blog post titled “Support,” he writes about how his ground crew is essential to his mission, symbolizing the help he refused to ask for over the years while dealing with PTSD.
“It took me 30 years to understand that simple concept. I was always to [sic] macho to accept help and rely on others. The problem with mental illness is accepting it and embracing it and taking that first step.”
Romeo also says that you don’t have to go to war to suffer from PTSD.
“Everyone at some time in their life will experience a traumatic event,” he writes on his blog. “How you understand it and how you wrap your mind around it and embrace it is how your going to be able to move forward in life.”
Progress is being made. Recently, President Trump signed an executive order that created a task force to help veterans with PTSD.
According to an article in Military.com, veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die from suicide than the general population.
The website says that the order will help by “creating a high-level task force to develop research strategies and plans to tackle the problem and provide grants for communities to help former troops who are struggling.”
This is exactly the kind of thing that Walk with Frank wants to help shine a light on, but Romeo also says that there is a lot more work to do.
“It’s so long overdue,” Romeo said. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Though he’s happy about the support, Romeo is always leary about how fast the government will actually help the soldiers he is meeting on the road every day.
“It’s like when they recognized PTSD it took them 10 years to come out with the findings,” he said. “We still need people like me yelling that we have a problem to make them do something about it. You know how I feel about education.”
On March 11, Romeo was in Rochester visiting one of the oldest Veteran Centers in the country started in 1973 by returning Vietnam Veterans. He stayed overnight at the men-only Richards House, a residence that the city center runs, where 32 other homeless veterans live and work together.
“I had a wonderful night,” he said. “It was an amazing experience.”
Romeo was able to document some of the stories of the men in the shelter.
“They are from all walks of life from all wars and they work together,” Romeo said.
He said Wegmens, the Western New York grocery store chain founded in Rochester, kept the shelter well-stocked; they had a full dinner that night.
Though the veterans there enjoy the support system, it’s no free ride. They have to chip in and keep clean. There are no drugs or alcohol allowed.
“They have to tow the line,” Romeo said.
Counselors are available for the men, some of whom are dealing with drug addiction.
On March 12, they were on the road heading back to Lima and then they would start heading toward Canandaigua to stay in another shelter in that town. He hoped to be in Syracuse by Friday night. While in Syracuse he will speak at another high school.
Romeo’s words are inclusive not just of the soldiers who fight in wars but the people around them, who know them, and come in contact with them.
“At heart we are all veterans,” Romeo blogs. “We are a veteran, we live with a veteran, we know a veteran and we are touched by them every day.”