2925 Titan Lane, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Romulo “Romy” Camargo never had a nickname until he joined the Special Forces.
“The guys had trouble pronouncing my name, so they started calling me Romy,” he said. “Eventually, I started introducing myself as Romy and ordering business cards with Romy on them.”
Those at Golden Gate High School Monday morning left with another name for Camargo: Hero.
Veterans Day came early to Golden Gate High School this year so that the school could accommodate a special visit by Camargo, a Special Forces chief warrant officer. It was Camargo’s first public speaking engagement since he was shot through the neck and paralyzed from the neck down while on a mission in Afghanistan a little more than one year ago.
Lt. Col. Scott Mann, who served in the Special Forces with Camargo, introduced the veteran.
“I was here with you last year and I talked about Special Forces,” Mann said. “I was thrilled when Mrs. (Sheri) Kleintop asked me to come back and bring with me an example of the person I was talking about.”
Mann told the audience of students, teachers and community members that Camargo was on his third tour in Afghanistan and was en route to a village to deliver medical supplies when he was ambushed. During the fire fight that ensued, Camargo was shot through the neck. Mann told the audience that his fellow soldiers got him from the medivac to an area where helicopters could pick him up. He traveled to Germany and Washington, D.C., before coming to Tampa, where he has been living at the James A. Haley Hospital, recovering from his injuries.
Camargo, 33, began his speech by telling the students that he cannot express the way that he feels about the U.S. military.
“Even in this chair, paralyzed from the neck down, I still love the U.S. Army. I still love Special Forces,” he said.
Camargo spoke about many of the places he had been since joining the Special Forces, including South America, a tour at the Kenyan Embassy for 25 days and 19 weeks in Key West — one of his favorite assignments, he said with a big grin.
Camargo said he decided to become a Special Forces chief warrant officer, which is a combat leader and staff officer who manages all aspects of Special Forces Operations in all operational environments, following his first tour in Afghanistan. He spoke of his fellow soldiers who were all aggressive and all wanted to do the job they were supposed to do.
“We all clicked,” he said. “And we were able to capture a lot of the enemy.”
Camargo began his third tour of Afghanistan in May of 2008. The deployment was expected to last until January 2009. He said he was with his men on a medical capabilities mission in eastern Afghanistan when they were hit with a fierce ambush.
“We had a female interpreter with us, she was like a grandmother to us. So, I put her in the front of the vehicle and I stay in the back. ... I was throwing grenades and I got turned around and when I turned back, I was shot in the back of the neck,” he said.
The bullet, he told the students, ricochetted off his C-3 vertebrae, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and causing him to lose the ability to breathe.
“The last thing I heard on that radio was, ‘Chief got hit! Chief got hit!’” he said.
He told the audience that a friend discovered he had stopped breathing and, while they were riding to the evacuation helicopter, used a razor blade to make an incision in his neck and stick a tube down his throat to help him breathe.
Camargo said he doesn’t remember much of the days and weeks that followed. He came to with his brother by his side on the trip from Germany to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Camargo urged the students to keep fighting.
“It is great to be here. It is great to be alive,” he said. “I am still in this fight. And you should all keep fighting. It might not be (during a war) in a foreign country, but you can all keep fighting.”
The Veterans Day Celebration at Golden Gate High School is put on each year by social studies teacher Sheri Kleintop, who began the presentation by thanking the veterans in attendance, as well as the Golden Gate and East Naples fire departments, which strung a giant American flag between two ladder trucks to welcome Camargo.
Kleintop told the students that veterans are not recognized as often as they should be. She said it was important to thank veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the two holidays that honor those who serve the United States, but said that should translate into thinking about their service every day.
That message did not go unnoticed by senior Cindy Rivas, who thanked the veterans standing at the door as the left the auditorium.
“These kinds of events are the kinds of events we need to have (at school) all the time,” she said. “These veterans do not get the honor they deserve.”
Rivas, who is in JROTC, said before she joined the group, she didn’t think much about her freedom living in the United States. Now, she said, she thinks about it a lot.
“I told myself that the next time I see a veteran, I am going to say thank you,” she said.
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Connect with Collier education reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/