2, 1969 was the worst day in Frank Romeo's life.
In the Vietnam jungles, his platoon was
ambushed, and 18-year old Romeo was shot seven
times. After his body healed, he squelched this
painful memory and assimilated back into his
life, eventually setting in in Bay Shore with
his wife and seven kids.
artist" Frank Romeo teaches Bay Shore High
School students about the effects of the Vietnam
But you cannot bury your past,
and when Romeo turned 45, a subconscious urge
compelled him to create art. Whenever he was
alone, he would use new paints to pour out
Vietnam memories onto his canvas. He would then
squirrel these paintings into a closet, refusing
to share the agonizing recollections with
friends or family.
When he finally relented, those
close to Romeo encouraged him to let the
paintings see the light of day at the West Islip
Public Library in 1995. Through that event, he
was surprised to learn that numerous Vietnam
veterans, from Long Island to Australia, were
also dabbling in what was known as "closet
art"—work not originally intended to be shared
with others. Artists like Randy Evans, Joseph
Fornelli and Richard Yohnka have also helped
bring the movement into public view over the
last several years. It's a movement that,
perhaps not coincidentally, began taking shape
as the 25-year cycle of post-traumatic stress
disorder surfaced worldwide in Vietnam veterans.
From their unbounded silent sorrow, art with a
unique beauty and understanding began to
For Romeo, Memorial Day
understandably brings bittersweet memories. On
Memorial Day 1997, however, Frank's oil painting
titled "Why?" was inducted into Chicago's
National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. The piece
applies its title question to hunger, war,
violence and homelessness, and depicts some of
the silent pain, passion and horror he witnessed
in Vietnam. The plaque accompanying "Why?"
reads, "Bonded For Eternity By Combat."
The museum's contents were
brought to the attention of Congress, who
recognized them as a national treasure,
something the artist saw as an ironic footnote.
"I was amazed," he admits. "I knew the work was
powerful and revealed a part of American history
never seen before, but this was beyond my
wildest dreams. After almost 30 years of dealing
with post-trauma, I had gone from being spit on
to being part of a national treasure."
Romeo quickly became a local
legend. After meeting and taking interest in
many Australian closet artists in particular, he
began hosting a traveling Australian Vietnam
closet art exhibit called "Touched By Fire,"
which consisted of 500 oil paintings and a
chronological mural showcasing Australia's
involvement in the war. Still, Frank was
chagrined to witness firsthand people's lack of
knowledge about Vietnam.
"It is startling that people do
not know Australia participated in the Vietnam
War for  years," remarks Romeo. "It was the
longest-running war in Australia's history."
After hearing countless people reiterate the
same phrase—"I didn't know that"—he realized his
artwork had led to his ultimate calling: Romeo
recently participated in the Bay Shore School
District's Ethnic Pen Student Writing
Conference, and the New York State Council on
the Arts and New York State Board of Education
are piloting a program in which Romeo will work
in conjunction with teachers, using artwork to
Romeo is also aware that as we
become further removed from the war itself, time
is of the essence to keep its lessons alive.
"The Vietnam veterans are getting older now," he
says. "The time is ripe to share our past.
Vietnam is a part of our history. It is like
bringing someone back from the Civil War and
being able to relive their experience firsthand
Doing his part to ensure the
brutal legacy of Vietnam does not fade as its
survivors dwindle in numbers, Romeo has also
just completed an autobiography about his
personal evolution and lifelong battle with
post-traumatic stress disorder, which he expects
to be published soon.
"Today, the Vietnam veteran no
longer stands in the shadows," he says
assuredly. "He is the proud parent and
grandparent with music recitals and soccer
practices to take his children to. He is the man
next door who has a business meeting and a
school board meeting all in the same day. But
that is only part of who he is. For through his
eyes he has become a historian, a critic, a
realist, a moralist and most importantly, a
shaper of the future."