Bay Shore alumnus presents ‘Art of War’
BAY SHORE—Vietnam veteran Frank Romeo has brought his “Art of War” exhibit to Bay Shore High School. The exhibit, which opened Tuesday evening, includes military paraphernalia from both American and Vietnamese forces, newspaper clippings from various U.S.-related conflicts over the recent decades, movie posters and vinyl records from the 1960s and early 1970s, and a wide range of Vietnam era-inspired artwork.
During the opening, Romeo spoke about his state-spanning “Walk with Frank” veteran advocacy project, where he will walk across New York State while staying in various homeless shelters along the way. He hopes to raise awareness to the plight of many veterans today.
Romeo’s 750-mile trek will begin in Buffalo, N.Y., on March 1, 2019, as he celebrates his 70th birthday. He will continue through the Southern and Northern tiers before arriving at his home in Bay Shore on June 1.
In addition to Romeo’s exhibition, Bay Shore High School’s social studies department has piloted an innovative “Experience of the American Soldier” curriculum. Joseph Lemke, the social studies department chairman, says the curriculum could “change the way we teach social studies.”
Adrianne Morpurgo, a U.S. history teacher at Bay Shore High School, gave a brief summary of the program, which allows students to analyze and interpret documents and letters reflecting soldiers’ experiences in conflicts through U.S. history.
Morpurgo says her students could sometimes see a difference in the mental state of the soldiers based on the wars in which they fought. Those who fought during the Civil War, for example, were sometimes excited to go off and fight, while soldiers returning from Vietnam often had feelings of isolation.
Romeo called the curriculum “groundbreaking,” adding that he will advocate for this “reality-based” program during his long walk next year.
In addition to his homeless shelter visits, Romeo has scheduled a number of speaking engagements throughout the state, where he will encourage educators to adapt the curriculum that is currently being taught in Bay Shore and some neighboring school districts, including West Islip.
Romeo joined the military right after graduating from Bay Shore High School in 1967. He arrived in Southeast Asia in the spring of the following year, during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest campaigns of the Vietnam War. He said that while on search-and-destroy missions, he was captured by enemy forces, used as target practice and left for dead. He was rescued by fellow U.S. troops and woke up, a month later, in Japan.
Back in the U.S., while recovering at a hospital on Long Island, Romeo said he had his first run-in with anti-war protestors, who spit on him and called him a “baby killer.” During that time, he became addicted to drugs and was eventually arrested for possession while stationed at West Point. Romeo said he was stationed there because he was “useless as a soldier.” He was then dishonorably discharged from a prison cell in New Jersey.
While the ruling was eventually overturned and replaced with an honorable discharge, Romeo began suffering from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. There were many different names for the disorder over the years, Romeo explained, such as battle fatigue and shell shock. He says he spent the next 20 years or so “floating around” with no real direction, but eventually came to terms with his condition, midlife, after discovering his artistic outlet.
It was around this time that Romeo starting speaking to students throughout New York State about his story and other matters pertaining to veterans. “I used to talk to students whose fathers fought in Vietnam. Now, it’s their grandfathers,” he laughed.
Earlier this week marked Romeo’s third visit to Bay Shore High School. As with other school districts, he was impressed, and appreciated how much some students, with different opinions on the subjects being discussed, opened up to him and their peers. Romeo doesn’t “pull punches,” either. He is upfront, not just about his past drug and alcohol abuse, but the killing he did during the war as well. Romeo visited Southeast Asia in 2014, as he believes all veterans should return to where their “trauma occurred.”
Romeo plans on producing a documentary about his journey next year. His filmmaking team was present during this week’s event to shoot footage for the project.
“I’m making the documentary about the walk to reach a larger audience,” Romeo explains in an online campaign for the project. “I feel this documentary is maybe the most important film of its kind as an educational tool to inform our young students about the reality of war and what to expect.”
He believes this open dialogue is just as important for veterans as it is for young people, as it is a way for them to cope with their trauma. “Once you get a veteran talking, they never shut up,” he laughed.
Romeo’s “Art of War” exhibit will be on display until Friday, Dec. 7 at Bay Shore High School.
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