Vietnam veteran Frank Romeo has spent more than four decades trying to heal wounds only he could see.
Now, the 65-year-old Bay Shore resident is about to confront the anguish of his war experience as directly as possible.
For the next six weeks, the former infantryman will be traveling through the lands where more than 58,000 American soldiers perished, and nearly 3 million more had their innocence shattered.
Visiting Southeast Asia for the first time since leaving in a medevac helicopter, clinging to life, Romeo will be sharing his long-suppressed war memories with anyone with an Internet connection.
The square-jawed father of seven has battled post-traumatic stress since he was almost killed in a Mekong Delta ambush. He will chronicle his travels -- and the war memories they stir -- starting Monday in a blog (gotmysecondwind.blogspot.com).
"I started a letter as my plane was landing in Long Binh," Romeo recalled of the day he began his combat tour, March 19, 1969. "This trip will be like giving myself the chance to finish that letter."
His solitary travels will take him places most Americans over 60 remember through grainy footage that once flickered on the evening news: Hanoi. Haiphong. Hue. Cu Chi. The Mekong Delta. The Ho Chi Minh Trail. He will be gone until November.
He says he's determined that high school students whose understanding of war skews mostly to video game combat and Hollywood films hear directly from people who have seen war's brutality firsthand.
"They need to understand war is not a video game," said Romeo, who supported his family with a catering business. "I am not pro- or anti-war; I am about the reality of war and what it does to us as people and a society."
Using his past to teach
Romeo has encouraged several school districts, including Bay Shore and South Huntington, to use his travel blog to help high school students understand the Vietnam War. He said students will be allowed to pose questions, which he'll try to answer within 24 hours.
Shelley Sauer, president of the parents association at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington, strongly supports the project. She said Romeo has been displaying war-related art and artifacts at social studies presentations at the school for years.
"It's living history for our kids, and he just brings it alive," said Sauer, who said Romeo also does workshops for 11th-graders. "It's one of the most popular programs in our high school. We're encouraging our social studies teachers to have students follow his blog."
Injury and insult
A 1967 graduate of Bay Shore High School, Romeo was a soldier with the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) when he was separated from his platoon during an ambush near the Cambodian border.
Riddled with bullets, Romeo slipped in and out of consciousness for the first month of a yearlong recuperation in 1969-70, spent in a string of military facilities stretching from Japan to Jamaica, Queens.
Although the shooting war was over for him, the political debate still raged in American cities. Romeo was shocked when, after his release from the hospital, he was treated with revulsion.
He retreated into a cocoon of anxiety, isolation and drug abuse, one that kept him emotionally hidden from others -- and even himself.
"We came home to the divided country -- the unrest, the upheaval -- and we were caught in the middle . . . A lot of us veterans went underground for many years, suppressing our feelings and emotions about what had happened to us," Romeo said.
But an eventual turn to art helped him access buried feelings that were keeping him a prisoner, and to begin his long climb back to emotional health.
He started painting while keeping himself mostly hidden away at home. His first effort depicted an African-American man, his visage contorted with pain and self-doubt. With each new painting, he said he learned how to forgive the pain that had contorted his own life.
Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to share his art. He began collecting the work of fellow Vietnam veterans, their own pain and isolation captured in oil and acrylic.
Romeo took on speaking engagements, traveling with his painting to schools and veterans gatherings up and down the East Coast. But wanting to travel to the headwaters from where his rage and anxiety once flowed, he booked a ticket to Southeast Asia.
"I've suffered from PTSD for 40 years," Romeo said in a Tuesday email from Bangkok. "Dealing with the pain has fueled my journey."