On Monday, the American Legion and Auxiliary will host a Veterans Day breakfast featuring guest speakers, military vehicles, a band, JROTC Cadets and more. The event represents the work of many, including 11th District Commander Johnny D. Castro.
Service has long been at the center of Castro’s life. Born in Hawaii, the son of a career soldier and Vietnam vet, Castro joined the Air Force in 1975. In the summer of 2010, after three deployments, including one in Bosnia, he returned from serving with the Army in Iraq. It was good to be home with two sons, and Cindylou, his wife of 25 years and his number one advocate.
“I felt really good about everything,” he says. “I decided I was going to go back to school so that I could be an example to my sons.”
He enrolled at Palm Beach State College.
But a year and a half later, he says, “I realized that I personally had a lot of [PTSD] issues going on.”
He enrolled with the VA Medical Center and began seeing a psychiatrist there, the late Dr. John Vara.
“I can’t say enough about [Chief of Staff] Dr. Ronald Williams, and the late Dr. John Vara. [Vara] made me realize the impact I could create being alive,” Castro says. “I could get up in the morning and thank God for my life and support folks in the community.”
It was a turning point.
“At that time, in trying to help myself, I also saw the plight in other veterans at the VA Hospital or within the community. I realized I needed to take care of all veterans – service members, veterans and retirees – and do what I can to help them out in any way that I could support.”
Unsure of where to begin at first, he helped vets where he could — locating a wheelchair, helping with paperwork, assistance with a health aide.
“I became known as a person that somebody that contact for assistance,” he said.
In 2014, he joined the American Legion. Today, he is a member and officer in several other vet organizations as well.
Castro sees gaps in veteran care, including homelessness, and works with other individuals and organizations to fill them.
“It could be because their injuries might not have been connected to their time in the military, yet they’re still veterans,” he said.
One project that is underway is a vegetable garden behind the Palm Beach VA Hospital that has raised beds to allow veterans in wheelchairs “to put their hands in the dirt,” Castro says.
“The veterans are actually going to help plant it, harvest it, water it, and they’re going to take it all and bring it over to the kitchen at the VA Hospital.”
There has been discussion to name the garden after Dr. Vara.
Helping vets was Castro’s goal when helping plan Monday’s breakfast. Guest speakers include Kai Foster, who retired last week from the Navy after 28 years as Senior Chief.
“To have women up there talking about their experiences [helps] make the public aware of what’s going on with our female veterans,” he says.
Breakfast begins at 9 a.m. with a 10 a.m. ceremony. RSVP required at 561-790-5196. Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center, 151 Civic Center Way.
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