With help from Rugby residents, Vietnamese vet says goodbye to friend | News, Sports, Jobs

Photo submitted Lionel Castillo, center, poses for a photo July 4 with Rugby residents Steve Wendland, left, and Jessie Wendland, right.

A disabled Vietnam veteran living in Texas has had a dream come true of saying goodbye to his US Army pal in Rugby, thanks to local residents willing to help a stranger.

Lionel Castillo, of San Antonio, Texas, had never set foot in North Dakota until the July 4 weekend.

But he had heard a lot about the state from his pal, army specialist Robert Hornstein, when the two were soldiers stationed in Long Binh, Vietnam, together from 1967 to 1968.

“Bob always said to me, ‘I’m from Rugby, the geographic center of North America'” Castillo said in a phone conversation. “He was always laughing and telling me stories from his childhood.”

“He was a great friend” Castillo added.

Both served in a supply unit. “I think it was called the 563rd Supply Company,” Castillo said. “We were in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.”

The supply company never saw combat, Castillo said, however, its depot was located next to a rainforest where personnel saw planes flying overhead, spraying Agent Orange to kill foliage.

After service in Vietnam ended, the company returned to Ft. Hood, Texas.

Around 1970, the military stints ended for Castillo and Hornstein, and each returned to civilian life. Castillo became a fifth grade teacher in Texas.

Hornstein returned to rugby.

“His mother wrote to me all the time – Florence Hornstein,” Castillo said. “Bob wasn’t really a letter writer. But she would write to me and keep me in touch with her son.

When Hornstein married, his wife, Mary, also wrote to Castillo.

“They sent me a birth announcement for Heidi, their eldest daughter,” Castillo said. “I still have it and I remember how happy he was that she was born into this world. I still treasure that.

“We were very, very close” Castillo said. “And then when I found out he had passed away at the age of 41, I felt really bad.”

Hornstein died of cancer in 1989. He was buried in Little Flower Cemetery in Rugby.

“His mother told me they were trying to reach me” Castillo said. “He had asked about me before he left this earth. They couldn’t reach me, but she wrote me a letter, and I always cherish the letters she would write to me.

“And it was on my wish list that before I leave this earth, I’m going to have someone take me from San Antonio, Texas, to Rugby, North Dakota,” Castillo said. “And of course it happened.”

The search begins

With little information other than Florence Hornstein’s address, Castillo sent another letter in early 2022 requesting information about Robert’s family and hoping for the best.

Florence had died in 2010. The new occupants of the house, Mike and Jessie Wendland, had received the letter.

“We got this letter in the mail, and I looked at it and thought, ‘I have no idea who this person is’, and I thought it was a scam,” Jessie Wendland called back.

“But I opened it and was reading it and I thought, ‘Wow. It’s crazy.’ It was Lionel and he wanted to get in touch with Robert’s family and the last known address for one of them was our house. So, he left me his email address in the letter, “ said Wendland. “I emailed him and said, ‘It’s a very small town. Give me a few minutes and I bet I can figure this out in no time.

Wendland said she remembered a question from family friend Charlotte Wurgler.

“She asked me, ‘Is that the Florence house you bought?’ », she says.

Wendland said she asked her mother, Michelle Lake, if she had known Florence and the Hornstein family.

Little by little, a track was formed with the help of social networks. Wendland found Bob Hornstein’s sister on Facebook. She forwarded Castillo’s email address and his letter. She also sent some pages of the Hornstein family tree that she had found during the renovation of the house.

“I got his address, I sent everything to him, I let Lionel know, and he sent me a thank you email, and I thought that would be the end of it,” said Wendland.

Wendland, who works as an emergency medical technician for the Heart of America Medical Center, was surprised.

Bucket List Item Completed

“On the 4th of July, I was cleaning an ambulance to participate in the parade, and my husband called me and said, ‘You have to come home right away.'” Wendland called back. “I thought maybe something had happened to the dogs.

“He said, ‘No, someone’s in the aisle and they want to meet you. I thought, ‘Ha, ha, Ashton, our son-in-law, was home for the weekend.’ He said, ‘No, he’s the man of the letter'” Wendland called back.

“I came home and saw Lionel and AJ standing in our driveway. AJ had driven him here. He is a full-time military man and he was off on weekends,” she says.

Castillo said the son of a friend in San Antonio who was an army lieutenant heard his story and was more than willing to help him on his journey to rugby. He drove the 2,000 mile round trip to help.

After their visit to the Wendlands, the two traveled to Rugby’s Little Flower Cemetery.

“On July 4, I was able to put a Vietnamese hat on Bob’s headstone and some flowers,” Castillo said.

“I decided before I went home, I would take something to remember him by. I looked at the ground and saw a pile of little pine cones,” Castillo added. “I picked up pine cones at the cemetery and brought them home. I will treasure them as a souvenir of my rugby trip.

Castillo said he also visited Florence Hornstein’s grave at the cemetery, and “spoke to him and Bob in prayer.”

After Castillo returned to Texas, news of his trip to Hornstein’s grave reached Mary Neuman, his widow.

Memories old and new

Wurgler and others contacted Neuman, who in early August visited Rugby and her former husband’s grave to see the hat Castillo had placed there.

“I was surprised,” Neuman, who now lives in Minnesota, said. “They sent me (text messages) that Jessie had written, and by the time I replied he had already returned to Texas.”

She noted Castillo “, said it was on his bucket list for years to see his amigo, my friend. On his hat it says “Amigo”.

Neuman said she and Castillo now text each other regularly.

She said he asked her to give her daughter, Heidi Hornstein-McClure, her hat when it faded over time in the harsh North Dakota climate.

Castillo said he regrets not keeping in touch with Hornstein and his family, especially after doctors from the Texas Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him as disabled due to exposure to Agent Orange. .

He said he wondered if Hornstein’s cancer could have come from the exposure.

Castillo said he would treasure his visit to North Dakota. His visit “brought back all those stories Bob used to tell me about rugby.”

“A story I remember he told me once he met the Abominable Snowman,” Castillo laughs. “He told me this story, and I cracked up, I believed him.

“Then he saw that I had a straight face and he said, ‘Castillo, do you believe what I’m telling you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘No, Castillo, I’m lying to you'” he added.

“I said, ‘It’s okay, just finish the story'” Castillo called back. “He was like that, always telling stories.”

“When I think of Bob, I think of all the racism and hate today,” Castillo said. “I am Mexican-American and Bob was of German ancestry. But Bob and I had no color barriers between us. We were just friends. He accepted me for who I was and I accepted him for who he was.

Like Robert Hornstein’s family, the Wendlands said they plan to keep in touch with Castillo.

“We plan to see him maybe this summer because we think it’s our turn to stop by to say hello,” said Jessie Wendland.

“It would have been easy for someone to say, ‘I don’t know who that person is’ and just throw the letter away,” Wendland added. “But he’s one of our veterans, and you have to help him.

“He did more work for me than I could ever do for him,” she says.

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