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Katie Matola-Costello daughter of Vietnam Vet speaks out

Profile Katie Matola-Costello LE Mag June 2018

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Katie Matola-Costello, daughter of Vietnam veteran Anthony ‘Tony’ Matola SP4 U.S. Army, in a candid interview with Mark Ulyseas

Katie Costello was born and raised in Hubbard, Ohio, USA.  Her greatest passion in life has always been to help animals.  She is lucky enough to be a licensed veterinary technician and owner of The Canine Campus Training and Wellness Center where she helps animals through behavior work. A vegetarian since she was 6 years old and a vegan for the last 11 years, she currently has 7 dogs, 7 cats, 7 chickens and 2 roosters and 3 farm pigs that are amongst her dearest friends.  She is founder of 2 non-profit organizations, K-9’s for Compassion (Co-founded with her father), a therapy animal group and The Together Journey, a service dog organization.  She has been on the board of many animal organizations throughout her life, including Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary and C.H.A.I.N.  (Community Helping Animals In Need).  After losing her Father to Agent Orange in july 8, 2015, she also acquired another great mission…to help people who are living from the effects of Agent Orange. In April of 2017 Katie and her husband, Sam, a veterinarian, went to Pleiku, Vietnam to kick off their understanding of the mission.  Fundraising is underway to assist VAVA in Pleiku on several projects.

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Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Could you give us an overview of your father’s life prior to joining the US Army?

My dad was in high school in 11th grade when he decided to join the US Army to beat the draft. He felt that if he joined he would have more training, and a better chance of survival. He married my mom, who was 16, upon completing boot camp, and they went to Germany together before dad was called to Vietnam. He and my mother were married up to the time of his death. Dad always enjoyed working on cars, and prior to joining the service he worked at a gas station/car repair shop to make enough money to keep his brothers and sisters clothed and fed. He was the oldest brother.

Where was he posted and when did he join the war?

When he joined the US Army he was sent for induction to Cleveland, Ohio, and for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And then to Fort Benning, Georgia for advanced training and onto Fort Sill Oklahoma for artillery school. He was stationed at Firth, Germany (West Germany) for about 8 months before being sent to Pleiku, Vietnam, in 1969.

When and where was he posted in Vietnam?

1969, Pleiku, Vietnam.

Which regiment and in what capacity?

This seems to be lost to time. He didn’t speak about it. But he was in artillery on Bà Nà Hill. He spoke of the Montagnards and how they (U.S. troops) helped so much. At least his platoon would always feed them.

How long was he in the war and what happened to him and his friends? Was he wounded? What were the fate of his friends?

He didn’t speak much about it, so I don’t have a lot of answers. But he was injured by shrapnel. The only way I know this is because after he died I wrote to get his file, including medical.

His best friend in the service, Gene Polito from Cleveland, who joined the service at the same time and went through boot camp with dad, didn’t come home. Dad told us the story of the two friends standing next to each other in boot camp. They lined them all up and then had them go back and forth saying a number “1, 2, 1, 2” etc. Gene Polito was next to him, so they ended up with different numbers. All 1’s became Army and all 2’s became Marines. Gene’s platoon suffered heavy artillery and was killed. Dad had so many regrets over him dying and he (dad) living… and dad was ashamed that he never went to visit Gene’s mother after he returned home.

On returning home did he go to a Vet hospital, what did he do, what job if any?

When dad returned home, he wouldn’t have anything to do with the VA (Veterans Association) until many years later and ONLY to be checked for Agent Orange. However, once he did go to the VA and found out not only did he have exposure to Agent Orange (and previously undiagnosed skin problems where his hands would split open were explained) but he also had stage 4 lung cancer from it, he stuck with the VA and was very pleased with them. He ended up having his scans and all his chemotherapy and immunotherapy at the Louis-Stokes VA Medical Center. His doctor was Dr. Manochakian and the compassion they showed, and the comradery of the other veterans, and the RESPECT was exactly what he needed. At a time when the VA was under scrutiny, dad and our family were most pleased with them. I truly believe that the respect shown at the VA is something that mainstream hospitals could learn so much from.

Dad worked in a steel mill (we live near Youngstown, Ohio, once the steel capital of the world!) as a welder. He worked there until retirement on January 31, 2016.

When were you born? How many members are there in your family?

I was born in 1971, two years after dad returned home from Vietnam. I also had a sister who was born in 1972. She died at 3 months from undetermined causes that they called SID’s. (Sudden Infant Death). I have 2 younger brothers. One born in 1976 and the other in 1981.

Anthony ‘Tony’ Matola SP4 U.S 1969

Anthony ‘Tony’ Matola SP4 U.S. 1969

While growing up did your father share his wartime experiences with the family?

No, not really. In rare glimpses, I suppose he hinted. When a helicopter flew overhead he would flinch. He spoke of the Montagnards that helped American soldiers.

After his diagnosis he spoke to priests about how one couldn’t go to Vietnam without killing someone, and yet how did one justify it when “thou shalt not kill” is in the bible. TRULY lifelong effects. My brothers have said that he spoke of the war to them, though they never shared anything with me.

How was his health, according to you?

His health was good until his last 5 years of life, I would say. He had a skin condition on his hands – they would swell until they split open. Doctors and specialists couldn’t give him an answer as to the cause. Antibiotics and steroids didn’t help. And when the affliction disappeared, it was short lived – only to return. It caused him great pain. Everything my Dad did was with his hands – working with his hands. Then, he started having trouble breathing.

Was he affected by Agent Orange?

Yes. And was given 100% disability immediately upon diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer.

And was this poisoning by dioxin diagnosed by the doctors?

Yes.

Dad and his dog Munchkin. She was the inspiration for me and my Dad to start the non-profit therapy animal group we founded together, K-9's for Compassion.

Dad and his dog Munchkin. She was the inspiration for me and my Dad to start the non-profit therapy animal group we founded together, K-9’s for Compassion.

Did the State pay for his treatment?

Yes. 100%. He struggled a little because he received 100% right away, and yet so many of his veteran brethren are still waiting.

How was his health, according to you?

His health was good until his last 5 years of life, I would say. He had a skin condition on his hands – they would swell until they split open. Doctors and specialists couldn’t give him an answer as to the cause. Antibiotics and steroids didn’t help. And when the affliction disappeared, it was short lived – only to return. It caused him great pain.

Everything my Dad did was with his hands –  working with his hands.

Then, he started having trouble breathing.

Was he affected by Agent Orange?

Yes. And was given 100% disability immediately upon diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer.

And was this poisoning by dioxin diagnosed by the doctors?

Yes.

Did the State pay for his treatment?

Yes. 100%. He struggled a little because he received 100% right away, and yet so many of his veteran brethren are still waiting.

Apart from his physical health, how was his mental health? Did he hate the Vietcong?

I would say he was haunted by them, and he certainly considered them the enemy BUT it always seemed to be past tense…as if the Vietnamese that were his enemy weren’t the same as the Vietnamese that exist today. He wouldn’t eat certain foods because of his experience there, such as chicken and rice. He feared snakes his entire life due to the many stories of the “two step” snakes. Ironically, when my husband and I went to Vietnam, even hiking through the mountainous jungle we never once saw a snake.

Was there any ‘guilt’ that your father experienced with regard to what was done by the army in Vietnam?

Yes. His later years he questioned everything. I think he felt as if death was too high a price to pay and he blamed himself for a decision that was made by those way higher than he. My Grandmother would tell the story of picking up my Dad from the airport when he came home and say “I drove right past him. I didn’t recognize him. His eyes told a story of being lost.”

Did he return to Vietnam in peacetime and go to the places where he fought with his regiment and meet the people? And if so, how did the Vietnamese civilians react?

No, he never returned to Vietnam. I think his PTSD wouldn’t have allowed that. I should say the PTSD is my terminology…he certainly wasn’t diagnosed with it because he would never seek out help. He would have never allowed himself to go though.

I can only speak to what I have seen when I was there…amazing people who are all embracing. They seem to realize that it was everyone’s job and no real hard feelings are held. I admire them for that. And if I could just say a little more here….Hoa (Nguyen Thuy Hoa (Ms) from Hanoi) reached out to me based on a newspaper article someone had sent to her about a fundraiser we were having to benefit people in Pleiku. She contacted me from that article and we have become friends. We flew in to Hanoi so that the 2 of us could meet while we were there. We exchanged pictures of our fathers…and all at once I realized just simply 1 generation before, our fathers were fighting against each other. How far we have come.

View from the Buddhist temple of the mountain where my dad fought on…

View from the Buddhist temple of the mountain where my dad fought on…

When did your father pass away? And what was the ailment/s that he had?

July 8, 2015. He had stage 4 lung cancer. He was diagnosed on June 24, 2014.

Have you returned to Vietnam after his death? And why?

I was woke up the morning of July 8, 2015 at 7:00 AM by my husband telling me my mother had called and that the ambulance was at my mom’s house that dad had collapsed and she thought he had died. I was hysterical and ran, pajamas and all to my car and drove 100 miles an hour the 5 miles I live from them. When I arrived they were still loading dad into the ambulance. As a matter of fact, I helped them to load him, talking to him the entire time. I then ran home to change into clothes and rushed to the hospital, where after several hours the decision was made to take him off of life support.

I was driving home, hysterical….and as I pulled into the town of Hubbard, Ohio that I live in there was a Vietnam era Huey helicopter that had landed in the field in front of the high school. The VFW (Veterans of Foreign War), building was directly across the street, had sponsored the visit. Veterans and people were everywhere. I was crying, (and had honestly NEVER seen this happen before, especially in my little town) and was alarmed at the chances of that happening at this time. I sat at the red light, staring at the Huey and said aloud to myself “I have to go to Vietnam.” I repeated that line several times over the next week, which truly was just a blur. I think it was all of the emotions I was feeling, an emptiness inside… that said I have to do this.

I have said a number of times that I feel like dad left a piece of himself there…and I was going to bring it home. But the reality was that I ended up leaving a piece of myself there too. At one point, …when I went to a Buddhist temple near the mountain that dad fought on I turned to see an open door and prayer flags, and the mountain he fought on behind it…and later wrote… “I turned to look at the mountain you fought on one more time before leaving Vietnam. I swear I heard you whisper my name. I will always love you daddy.”

How did you feel when you visited the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam?

It was truly an amazing and humbling experience. First, there was a meeting as to how to properly use the money that we had raised, and would continue to raise for this cause. They pulled out the red carpet, truly, and allowed us into the school room where the kids showed us pieces of their school work, a boy who wrote with his feet because his fingers were rendered useless. The will to thrive. The determination not to give up was truly amazing to me. I saw the parents of some of these children, the difficulty of their lives written all over their faces as they held their children that were severely affected by Agent Orange. When I thought about the American soldiers affected by Agent Orange, I began to realize at such a depth that our soldiers went home. Even bigger were the effects felt by the people left in Vietnam. The pictures, the lives touched, it was really profound and difficult. I will continue to help in whatever ways we possibly can to fund raise to help. The adults there, no one looking on with judgement, and I very obviously don’t look Vietnamese. Smiles, nods. They were so welcoming. The small kitchen and the women that cooked the meals – beautiful and so simple. Doing what they could with very little to work with. It certainly makes us think and feel differently about the world around us in America. It was emotional, and yet it was very healing. I certainly knew that this was a path that I needed to follow for probably the rest of my life.

At VAVA with my husband Simon and child victims of Agent Orange

Do you think the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange will ever get justice? And will those soldiers like your father ever be acknowledged as victims of Agent Orange?

I think in America it is getting better. Of course, only after countless have died. There are many people who are fighting for a long time for the rights of their deceased loved ones. I can only hope and pray that they get justice.

Please give us a short overview of your life and works?

I am a licensed veterinary technician and certified professional dog trainer. I own The Canine Campus Training and Wellness Center in Hubbard, Ohio. I will help any animal. We are a vegan family and have 7 pet dogs, 7 cats, 9 chickens and 3 pet farm pigs. I love to travel and write. Humanitarian efforts with animals and people exposed to Agent Orange are a passion of mine. I donate a service dog that I train to an American veteran

 

 

 

 

© Katie Matola-Costello