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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!