U.S. Army Reserves Spc. James Castoro enlisted on February 9, 2008, seeking to follow in the footsteps of his father, Army Sgt. Nicholas “Nicky” Castoro, and served in Afghanistan over the course of his military career. The elder Castoro was drafted to serve on February 8, 1968, amidst the Vietnam War, spending more than a year fighting in the conflict.
When Nicky returned to the United States, he and other veterans found a country that didn’t always do what it could to welcome soldiers back from an unpopular war. In contrast, when James and other members of the current generation of service members return, they often find support from their community.
On February 23, the New Jersey Devils honored and celebrated both of the Staten Island veterans as the team’s Heroes of the Game, recognizing them together in thanks for their service.
“I wasn’t in college so it was just a matter of time. I knew I was going to get drafted,”
Nicky, 67, said recalling how he felt when he learned he was drafted more than 45 years ago. At the time, the then-19-year-old was working in a sporting goods store and played in a band.
Over his 19 months of service, Castoro spent 14 months as part of combat infantry in Vietnam, deployed from July 1968 until September of 1969, reaching the rank of sergeant quickly. “I was doing the work of a sergeant as a PFC (Private First Class). In the Vietnam War there was so much turnover that you could get promoted fairly quickly, even if you didn’t want to,” Castoro said.
When he returned from service, members of his family who had served in World War II saw the sleeves on his arm bearing the sergeant’s insignia, saying, “How long were you in the Army? How’d you make sergeant?”
When James was 19, he volunteered for service with the Army Reserves, inspired by his father. “He didn’t force me to join, but I’ve always had a military understanding and appreciation because of him,” the 27-year-old veteran said. James explained that he was always going to choose the same branch as his father, pursuing the role of a military police officer that he hoped at the time would translate to a civilian job with the New York Police Department.
In January 2012, James was sent to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, to help operate the Parwan Detetion Facility at Bagram Airfield. “There were Al-Qaeda in there…and all the bad guys.” Castoro explained that his role was to help train the Afghan Army and prepare local forces for management in advance of an eventual turnover of authority at the facility.
On his Devils jersey, Castoro commemorates his service with a custom nameplate, which says OEF Veteran above No. 44. Castoro explained that he originally wanted to put a 4 on his jersey because it’s his favorite number, but since the number was retired to honor Scott Stevens, he chose 44 as an alternative.
James also spent a month in Israel in late 2009, working side-by-side with the Israeli Defense Force on missile exercises involving the small Middle-Eastern nation’s Iron Dome defense system.
The senior Castoro received various accolades during his brief service, and said his Combat Infantryman badge is his most precious of all. The badge was displayed on both the jacket and hat he wore to the game. The badge is awarded for being a trained infantryman and serving in a combat zone. “You’ve got to really earn that one. Combat infantry, they call us grunts because it’s the worst job in the Army, but there’s a lot of pride in it.”
For James, his most meaningful award is his Afghanistan Campaign Ribbon, awarded for serving in Afghanistan for 30 or more consecutive days. “I didn’t get pretty ones like [my dad did] but it was tough being away from home for that long.” James also received an Army Commendation Medal, awarded for being the “top gun” in his company. In a target exercise, the younger Castoro hit 37 of 40 targets, ranging from 10 meters to nearly a mile in distance. “I shot the highest score out of everybody.”
A longtime Devils fan, James said part of his fandom comes from seeing other veterans celebrated at games. On being honored alongside his dad, James said “it can’t get any better than that.”
James said his favorite player is Eric Gelinas, who as of this season wears the same number as James’ jersey. “I think he’s a great defenseman. I like the way he shoots…ever since he came here, I just kept an eye on him.” All-time, James said, his favorite Devil is Martin Brodeur. When Brodeur’s number was retired on February 9, it was a special day for James as well, marking eight years since he enlisted and the completion of his service. “I should have come here,” he joked realizing the overlap.
Nicky, on the other hand, had not been to a game at Prudential Center before, and while admitting to being “only a moderate fan” said he had been to games for other teams in the area, and was completing a set, saving the Devils for last.