WWII KIA/MIA Effect Iraq Vets to Make Dreams Come True

November 10, 2015

By Alex Castagno

In November 2013 I was opened up to an opportunity to do something that I would have never dreamed of: Serve my country again, in a non-combat environment, and walk in the footsteps of the greatest generation our country has ever known. On their battlefield, I would support the effort to look for those that did not return from the island of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. What I didn’t know at the time, was that the men and women that died for our country over 70 years ago, would directly impact me and many other veterans along the way. The island, it’s people, and the mission would change my life forever.

Items recovered on Guadalcanal from the war.

Items recovered on Guadalcanal from the war. Photo: Alex Castagno

The initial planning and preparation took me six months which included a trip to the island without ever knowing if I was actually going to support the recovery effort. Then, in June of 2014, I got a call and was on a flight from the U.S. to Australia in 48 hours. From there, I would fly into Guadalcanal and work would begin immediately. I would be there in support of a military organization that would look for remains of our countries Missing In Action and Killed In Action from the campaign fought between 7 August 1942 and 9 February 1943. This is the campaign that would change the war in the Pacific. It would turn the tide against the Japanese and give the U.S. momentum that would carry through to an eventual victory.

Ordnance found in the Jungle.

Ordnance found in the Jungle. Photo: Alex Castagno

When one first flies into the Island they’re greeted with 85-90 degrees, 100% humidity, and no air conditioning as you stand in line at customs for entrance into the country. In the background you can hear music that represents the local harmonies that have been listened too for decades. As I stood in line, sweating my ass off, I wasn’t thinking about the introduction that our country’s heroes were given when they first landed on Red Beach in August 7th 1942. The only thing going through my head was, “I wonder if everyone in line behind me can see my swass (sweaty ass crack).” Though the initial landing for our troops wasn’t a bombardment from the Japanese as expected, they sure as hell weren’t listening to a soothing island tune as they dug their fox holes in the sand, jungle, and blistering heat.

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One of the many tanks that can be seen around the island. The thickness of the jungle can be seen behind the tank. Photo: Alex Castagno

Over the course of the next year and a half I’d find myself on WWII sites such as Mt. Austen and Alligator Creek helping search for those that were laid to rest on these battlefields and never returned home. Because of the harsh environment, and the chaotic firefights it was very hard to keep accurate accounts of where men had died. Many of the deceased service members, would remain in these austere locations for the next 70+ years, until they were found by US recovery efforts, if ever at all. Unfortunately most remains are unrecoverable. They are either at the bottom of the sea, in the bed of a river, or their remains have succumbed to changes in environment and erosion.

Where's Waldo? Look closely.

Where’s Waldo? Look closely. Photo: Chris Kendrick

Through the many months I spent on the island I’d get to know some of the locals, and work with several villages. Many of them would become more family, than say a co-worker or friend. One village known as Mbarana where I’d spend the majority of my time was positioned directly over a major battle site on Mt. Austen. As I’d drive up to the village daily I’d be greeted by children running along side the car giggling, waving, and calling out my name, “ALEX, ALEX!!!” As the adults would stand outside their huts waving to me with smiles. However, this was not the same scene that I came to the first few weeks working with them. It would take a lot of time to gain the trust from the people of Mbarana. They would eventually treat me as one of their own. Many of them calling me their brother. I would teach them and show them things of the western world, but I found myself also learning from them, daily. Whether learning their language, how to make rope out of tree bark, or chew betel nut, I was continually learning about how they have lived off the land for hundreds of years.

Chris and I were invited to village event. We're told that we were the first people outside the village to ever join the ceremonies.

Army Veteran Chris and I were invited to a village event. We’ were told that we are the first people outside the village to ever join the ceremonies. Photo: Hudson(of Mbarana)

To support these efforts, I hired other veterans that I knew and trusted. Most of which that had been a part my platoon during my two tours in Iraq that accumulated to 27 months. Although we were in support of a military organization, we were still private contractors that couldn’t fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Government. We were in a third world country, and as in any of it’s kind, there were risks associated. I needed to mitigate that risk by hiring other vets that were comfortable in uncomfortable environments.

Army Veteran Gabriel Bravo takes in the scenery with Mbarana Village hunter Hudson. He took us to a waterfall deep in the jungle.

Army Veteran Gabriel Bravo takes in the scenery with Mbarana Village hunter Hudson. He took us to a waterfall deep in the jungle. Photo Alex Castagno.

We were all part of something important to our country by being there, supporting the search for those who never came home. But there was more to it than that for us. It was very personal. Our conversations would many times revolve back to, “how the hell did they fight in a place like this.” The battlefield where we served was an open desert, or in cities where you could see for miles. Unlike the men who fought in the Pacific, they rarely could see the man to their left and to their right because of the thickness of the vegetation around them. They truly served in a harsh environment; on hills that were almost vertical, on minimal rations, if any, and often times no water as it was poisoned by the enemy. There was a toughness, bravery, courage, that isn’t often seen in today’s generation. The generation that fought in WWII were a different breed of man. They were selfless, and they weren’t just fighting for the freedom of their own country. They were fighting for the freedom of the entire world.

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Veteran Chris Kendrick(USMC) and Kenny Wolfe(Army) strike a pose with the guys after work. Photo: Alex Castagno

In five trips over to Guadalcanal we would find remains at every site we would excavate. We would uncover round after round of expended ammunition. Often work could be halted by the discovery of a live mortar round. We found material evidence that was used by both American and Japanese soldiers. To see for your own eyes; teeth, bones, buttons, helmets, etc… there were many emotional moments. There was never a time that I left one of the sites that I didn’t look out across it, nod my head, and say thank you to the men who still remained. Thank you for allowing me to be here today, alongside you, brother.

Repatriation Ceremony. After waiting 73 years, it's finally time to come home.

Repatriation Ceremony. After waiting 73 years, it’s finally time to come home. Photo: Alex Castagno

Many people have wondered, and some very bizarre theories have come to be, as to where I go when I leave the country. Some think I’m a mercenary on the front lines of Syria, or I’m part of the Expendables. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s something that was instilled in me while I was in the Army; I will never leave a fallen comrade. I will continue to live by this for the rest of my life.

This is at the U.S. War Memorial on Guadalcanal.

At the U.S. War Memorial. Photo: Alex Castagno

As with many stories you’ll hear on Veteran’s Day, there is a reason why this one was written. This gives us all a brief insight on how those who have sacrificed, all the way back to WWII still affect us today. The men and women that died on the island of Guadalcanal have affected me in a way that I could never express enough thanks. Since they perished years ago they have given me and other vets jobs that changed our lives. It afforded my business partner Chris and I the opportunity to make a dream come true; to open our own shop, the Coeur d’Alene Bike Co.

This photo actually means a lot. Overlooking the island toward Henderson Field atop Mt. Austen.

Overlooking the island toward Henderson Field atop Mt. Austen. A lot of meaning in this photo. Photo: Alex Castagno

As I have taught my son, I would ask that you would teach your children; when they see a man or woman wearing the proud hat of a Veteran, walk up to them, shake their hand, and tell them thank you. But don’t let this “one day a year” be your only opportunity to say thank you. One day out of the year is not enough. Make every day Veterans Day. To all the Veterans past and present, on behalf of us here at the Coeur d’Alene Bike Co., THANK YOU!

SNAKE!!! Nope that's just a vine. Photo: Alex Castagno

SNAKE!!! Nope that’s just a vine. Photo: Alex Castagno

Read the sign. Theres a back story to it that's even better. Ask, and I'll tell you.

Read the sign. Theres a back story to it that’s even better. Ask, and I’ll tell you. Photo: Alex Castagno

Hudsons pikinini Maria.

Hudsons pikinini Maria. Photo: Alex Castagno IMG_9130

Snot nose little kids are over in the Solomons too :)

Snot nose little kids are over in the Solomons too :) Photo: Alex Castagno

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Mbarana Village elder, Peter, looks out across his land, with the same view that our troops looked over awaiting attacks by the Japanese.

Mbarana Village elder, Peter, looks out across his land, with the same view that our troops looked over awaiting attacks by the Japanese. Photo: Alex Castagno

I'd often spend evenings playing volleyball, soccer, or just talking with the people of Mbarana.

I’d often spend evenings playing volleyball, soccer, or just talking with the people of Mbarana. Photo: Sam of Mbarana

Un-exploded ordnance are still found daily around the island.

Un-exploded ordnance are still found daily around the island. Photo: Alex Castagno

U.S. War memorial.

U.S. War memorial. Photo: Alex Castagno

The inscription on the tower says, "The memorial was constructed by the United States of America in humble tribute to the Americans and their allies who lost their lives during the Guadalcanal campaign 7 August 1942 - 9 February 1943."

The inscription on the tower says, “The memorial was constructed by the United States of America in humble tribute to the Americans and their allies who lost their lives during the Guadalcanal campaign 7 August 1942 – 9 February 1943.”

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In the Solomon Islands children are called pikininis. ‘peek-e-knee-knees’ Photo: Alex Castagno

Hudson, the main hunter of the village took Chris and I boar hunting. With spears.

Hudson, the main hunter of the village took Chris and I boar hunting. With spears. Photo: Alex Castagno

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Veteran Chris Kendrick(USMC) and myself work along side locals in the monsoon weather. Photo: Alex Castagno

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But that hair!

But that hair! Photo: Alex Castagno

Many of the locals have natural blonde hair. And it's awesome.

Many of the locals have natural blonde hair. And it’s awesome. Photo: Alex Castagno

Gabe overlooking the waterfall. Look closely and you can see Mathew(one of our guides) under the waterfall.

Gabe overlooking the waterfall. Look closely and you can see Mathew(one of our guides) under the waterfall. Photo: Alex Castagno

Overlook on top of Mt. Austen.

Overlook on top of Mt. Austen. Phto Alex Castagno.