Director leaves Punchbowl cemetery post
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Over nearly a quarter century at Punchbowl, cemetery Director Gene Castagnetti was an ambassador for veterans and host to three U.S. presidents, three South Korean presidents, two Japanese prime ministers, the emperor and empress of Japan, the president of the Philippines, prime minister of Australia, a U.S. secretary of defense and multiple consuls general.
"I can't imagine anyone doing it as well," retired Army four-star Gen. David Bramlett said simply.
"He's greatly respected by all the veterans groups," added Bramlett, a Hawaii resident. "They know he cares for everybody who's gone and is there (in the cemetery) under his care."
But someone else will have to do all that from now on. Castagnetti retired suddenly and quietly, effective Sept. 30, after nearly 24 years at the helm of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
The retired Marine colonel and decorated Vietnam combat veteran said he could no longer stomach what he characterized as "micromanagement" from the Veterans Affairs regional office in California and a new director of field operations in Washington, D.C.
That micromanagement extended to political decisions regarding burial spots at the cemetery, Castagnetti said.
"I think I would have (otherwise) stayed longer, because I'm in good health and I could still contribute and be an advocate for veterans," the 75-year-old Kailua resident said.
Castagnetti in August received the Disabled American Veterans Outstanding National Cemetery Administration Employee Award for extraordinary service to veterans. Punchbowl is administered through the VA's cemetery administration.
The VA did not comment on Castagnetti's accusations of micromanagement. The agency brought in Jim Taft, chief operating officer from the Oakland, Calif., regional office, as acting director.
In the meantime, the state and U.S. Pacific Command are planning laurels for Castagnetti, while leaders who know him echoed Bramlett's praise for the "Italian kid from Boston" known as "Gino" throughout his Marine Corps and VA career.
"Gene Castagnetti — the best of the best," said former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, now secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Cleland, who lost both legs and part of an arm in Vietnam, worked with Castagnetti on a $6 million Vietnam mosaic war maps pavillion at Punchbowl.
"He was the ultimate ambassador, and he could flat run a cemetery and all its ramifications, particularly in terms of its powerful meaning for those of us who are veterans and who visit the cemetery from around the world," said Cleland, who will be the keynote speaker at this year's USS Arizona Memorial Dec. 7, 1941, commemoration.
Cleland's father was a Navy enlisted man stationed at Pearl Harbor after the attack.
Cleland said there was nothing like an "old, gruff Marine to lead the charge and keep everybody in line" at Punchbowl.
The national memorial cemetery is the final resting place for 54,630 dead, has a budget of about $2.4 million, and is visited by between
3.5 million and 4 million people a year, officials said.
Castagnetti had also become adept at welcoming world leaders to Punchbowl.
"So it was a very unusual combination of Marine skill and deft diplomacy — which you don't find normally in one person," Cleland said with a laugh.
Castagnetti did two tours in Vietnam, in 1965 and 1969. He received a Silver Star for his actions near the village of An Bang when his Marine rifle company ran into a much larger North Vietnamese battalion. The Marines overran an enemy emplacement and killed more than 80 soldiers while suffering one fatality.
"Gino was the stuff of legends," said retired Marine officer Kerry Gershaneck, now a senior associate with the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.
When one of his sniper teams was in a firefight with a large enemy force 500 meters in front of his lines, Castagnetti slipped through the enemy forces and heavy jungle to bring the four Marines safely back, Gershaneck said.
Castagnetti said he learned some of his diplomatic skills in 1970 as a briefing officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
He came aboard at Punchbowl in 1990.
The next year, at ceremonies marking the 50th
anniversary of the Dec. 7 attacks, the cemetery hosted more than 6,000 Pearl Harbor survivors and their families, as well as President George H.W. Bush.
Bush's son, George W., never visited as president, but Bill Clinton did and Castagnetti hosted President Barack Obama many times.
In 2008, Obama, then a U.S. senator, visited the grave of his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, a World War II veteran, at Punchbowl.
"Every year I've met him, and of course escorted him when we did the Sen. (Daniel) Inouye memorial service. My wife and I escorted the president and first lady," Castagnetti said.
Those dignitary visits also brought some interesting historical perspectives. Castagnetti hosted the emperor and empress of Japan at Punchbowl in 1994 and 2009.
"They are very gracious, but what is so important in their visit to the national cemetery was they came to pay homage to the American veteran, because they understood. Even though he was the son of Hirohito, Akihito understood that it was the Americans' service and sacrifice that brought prosperity to the Pacific Rim and Japan," he said.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Hank Stackpole, who once ran Marine Corps Forces Pacific and who lives in Hawaii Kai, said nobody has done a better job running Punchbowl than Castagnetti, because his heart was in it.
"We both saw a great deal of battle," Stackpole said, and when Castagnetti took over at Punchbowl, he understood what the cemetery meant to veterans' families.
It was veterans who were first and foremost in Castagnetti's thoughts, and he went about his job without being "political in any way," Stackpole said.
No announcement was made by the VA or Punchbowl of Castagnetti's departure.
Nadine Siak, cemetery spokeswoman, said it's unclear when a permanent replacement will be named. "I don't think there's any particular timeline," she said.
The U.S. Pacific Command said late last week that Castagnetti will be recognized at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery, where the theme is "Veterans: Remember Their Legacy."
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, after his keynote address, will call Castagnetti up "for a few special state presentations in honor of Gene's dedicated service in serving military members, veterans and families throughout the entire state," said Ron Han, director of the state Office of Veterans Services.
Castagnetti, his wife, Nina, and other family members are scheduled to attend.
"Gino" still works out at 4:30 a.m. weekdays at the Marine Corps base, and doesn't plan to give up on his fellow veterans.
"Maybe get a little more involved in the Oahu Veterans Council," he said. "I'm certainly going to travel and see these great-grandchildren of mine and continue to make sure that people understand it takes some sacrifice to keep our nation free."