Frank Romeo walked with an ambling gait down the middle of Main Street in Bay Shore, wearing through his third pair of shoes since he started his walk in Buffalo more than 750 miles and three months ago.
“We walking this pace the whole way, Frank?”
He smiled but he didn’t slow down.
A woman gives a thumbs up as she drives passed.
He waves back.
Someone asked him if he felt like he was in shape yet.
“It’s going to put me in shape or kill me,” he quips.
People race up to him. He walks and talks with veterans, supporters, fans, friends and family. Hugs and kisses for a hometown hero.
A father and his kids on bicycles wait on the side of the road until he passes. They cheer him on waving Old Glory in the sunshine.
“We love you, Frank!”
“Thank you, Frank Romeo!”
A throng of more than a hundred walkers, bikers, wheelchairs and motorcycles join Romeo at his brisk pace. Even with his slight limp he still led them all while bearing his own American flag.
Three pairs of shoes.
Three and a half months.
758 miles down and two more to go.
“It’s not about the mileage. It’s not about a war story. It’s about the message,” he said at the end.
In Vietnam, Romeo was shot in the jungle and left for dead. Somehow he survived. Like many other young boys in that era, he didn’t know what he was getting into when he left and when he came home, he found he was more alone than patrolling the dense tropics in a foreign land.
For more than 50 years, Romeo battled.
He battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after coming back. He battled for his mental health using art as therapy. He battled for his fellow veterans by bringing their artwork to the forefront.
Then he battled for future soldiers by helping to create a new school curriculum called “The Experience of the American Soldier.”
Now he battles for attention to make sure the soldiers who come home don’t get left behind in their own struggles with PTSD.
Romeo walked across New York State, sleeping in shelters, visiting VA homes and educating high school students in their hometowns along the way.
His message is symbolized with his hike across The Empire State.
“The message of moving forward,” he explained. “The message of solidarity with our veteran community and reaching out to them.”
Romeo’s walk ended on a sunny day in Bay Shore. He said he did what he set out to do.
“It’s far exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I am very grateful.”
He started the day at the head of Brightwaters canal surrounded by veterans holding American Flags. He was played off on the final leg of his journey with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” a rock anthem fittingly about a desperate veteran forgotten by the very country he fought for.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Romeo said on the route. “The turnout is just awesome. A lot of love.”
After they walked the two miles to BayShore High School he was treated to a hometown hero’s welcome.
Romeo introduces people to each other saying, “Meet my new best friend.”
Many came to identify with the man who was speaking out in support of all veterans.
Randy Schniptger, a Vietnam Vet formerly from Islip Terrace came from out of town for the event.
“I was in the same unit as Frank but not at the same time,” he said,
Mike Mancuso, also from Islip Terrace, was there with an American Flag to support Romeo. He was a Vietnam-era veteran in Germany at the time.
Elected officials from New York State, Suffolk County and the Town of Islip spoke on the front steps of the school and gave accolades to Romeo. The Bay Shore High School Harmoneers led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the National Anthem and God Bless America.
As a former teacher herself, New York State Senator Monica Martinez said education is an important component of what Romeo was doing. It was part and parcel to making sure those who served get the care they deserve.
“We need to protect and defend our veterans like they protected and defended us,” she said.
New York State Senator Phil Boyle thought it was a crazy idea when Romeo told him he wanted to walk across the state.
“And now here we are,” he joked.
Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said that Romeo’s work is necessary.
“The awareness has to be raised and Lord you have done it,” she told him.
Romeo took to the podium and declared that after more than a year of planning and months of walking through frigid temperatures, blustery wind, rain and then an eighty-degree day, Team Walk with Frank had set out what it meant to do.
“Mission accomplished,” he told a cheering crowd.
He had gone to the veterans where they live and sleep.
“We’ve touched the homeless by living with them as an equal and documenting their stories and giving them a voice. Touched our elected officials by presenting at the State Capitol and being recognized on the Senate floor as a viable source for change. We’ve touched the younger generation by presenting a new curriculum at the state level, The Experience of the American Soldier. And we spoke about it countless times throughout New York State.” he said. “And we’ve touched mental health by attacking the stigma surrounding mental health.”
That was when he said what he thinks no one should be afraid to.
“I have PTSD,” he declared. “I have a mental condition. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We need to say the words out loud. Loud and clear.”
According to Romeo, the walk may be over but the work continues. He feels a responsibility to current veterans and those who will come after. But, it’s not just he alone who bears that responsibility.
“We have a responsibility to education. We have a responsibility to lay the foundation for our future veterans. We have a responsibility to reach out and touch our veterans in homeless shelters, in outreach centers, in VA hospitals. We have that responsibility. All of us together,” he said.
Romeo stressed that the problem is one that transcends politics.
“It’s a social problem. It’s an American problem. We have a crisis here in America. I don’t believe what we’re doing is enough. We need to rethink our approach. We need to rethink our education We need to rethink mental health. And together we can do this.”
Ultimately Romeo is still Bay Shore kid fighting the same war, one in which the nuances are being glossed over by movies and the media. Walking across the state, displaying his artwork and bringing the curriculum he inspired to schools across New York, Romeo is boots on the ground for veterans with PTSD making sure that the reality of the American soldier is never lost.
“We are one in solidarity. We walk together as one. Always moving forward,” he said. “Because we can’t go back.”