In this Record file photo, Frank Carrillo rides a 2006 Harley Deluxe with the Vietnam Veterans of America, Roswell Chapter, motorcycle group. (Mark Wilson Photo)
When Frank Carrillo enlisted in the U.S. Army two days after he graduated high school in 1970, he signed up to be a truck driver. He was flown to Vietnam instead.
â€œIâ€ˆfound out after training that thatâ€™s not how the Army works,â€ he said, chuckling at his own 19-year-old naivety. â€œYou donâ€™t always get what you want in the military.â€
It is only now, 40 years later, that Carrillo finally broke into the transportation business. And the tattooed veteran with a white beard down to his chest is driving cargo that is close to his heart â€” fellow veterans.
Carrillo, the sergeant-at-arms and life member of Vietnam Veterans of America Post No. 968 in Roswell, has helped his brothers of war get to and from VAâ€ˆhospitals in Albuquerque, Artesia, and Amarillo, among others, free of charge for the past fiveâ€ˆyears. It is the only free transportation service for veterans in southeastern New Mexico.
The operation, originally called â€œVeterans Helping Veterans,â€ began in 2005 with Carrillo and six other veterans. In the beginning, all they had was $35 and their own vans.
The founding president of the group, Frank Ramirez, said the need for transportation from Roswell was so great, they made about 10 to 12 runs a week, totalling to 1,200-1,400 trips in the first nine months.
â€œWe were very, very busy then,â€â€ˆRamirez said. â€œIt was a very much needed service here.â€
After the group garnered popularity and media attention, the veterans received financial help from organizations like the VA, New Mexico Veterans Services, Southeastern New Mexico Community Acts Inc., local politicians and even petroleum companies in Artesia. They also dropped the name Veterans Helping Veterans and created the VVAâ€ˆRoswell chapter, which now operates the transportation network.
The network currently has eight vans, two of which are wheelchair accessible. Two of the vehicles are located in Hobbs, two are based in Carlsbad, and four remain in Roswell.
Five years after the driving groupâ€™s debut, Carrillo is still an active member of the VVA. He drives veterans, recruits new members and organizes charity events. For the past four years, Carrillo has hosted a food and clothing drive during the holiday season for homeless veterans and the needy within the Roswell community. He also gives to groups like Help Hospitalized Veterans, Disabled American Veterans and the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund.
Frequently, Carrillo will escort military funerals or ride for charities on his 2006 Harley Deluxe with the VVAâ€™s motorcycle group. And each year over Memorial Day weekend, he and a pack of veteran motorcyclists will drive to the â€œsacred grounds,â€ The Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire, a town in northern New Mexico.
â€œFor four days, the vets all come home,â€â€ˆhe said.
The reason why he is so involved in the veteran community is simple, he says: the veterans are his brothers.
â€œThereâ€™s no closer bond than the bond between men who have faced death in combat,â€ he said.
Carrillo also said he relates to soldiers who are troubled emotionally and mentally when they arrive home from their tour of duty. He personally has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since his deployment in Vietnam with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, nicknamed The Black Death. He remembers stomping through the jungles of Da Nang and Chu Lai as a â€œgrunt,â€â€ˆor foot soldier, trying to stay out of sight of the sniperâ€™s mark.
â€œIn war, especially in Vietnam, the infantry did the fighting and most of the time, they did the dying,â€ he said.
He says he still has nightmares and flashbacks, but relies on his family and veteran friends for support.
â€œThereâ€™s not a cure,â€ he said. â€œâ€Itâ€™s just something you just got to cope with.â€
He added, â€œItâ€™s hard for a person who hasnâ€™t been confronted with death to understand … but within the veteran community, you can talk to each other.â€