Not every story has a happy ending but thanks to a dream, hard work, and Project Help life is good for US Army Veteran Carmine Costello and his family.
When Carmine met Sandy Mitchell, the executive director of Project Help he was destitute, out of hope and at the end of the road. Through no fault of his own life had dealt him some bad blows that left him lost. He called Sandy because she came highly recommended by a friend and fellow veteran.
“I had thoughts of suicide regularly until I met Sandy”, he said. “Please understand, I would never have done something like that to my wife and kids, but the thought was there almost daily.”
Sandy helped talk him down off the ledge. “We had many conversations,” he said. “She kept telling me this was a temporary situation and that I was going to pull myself out of it. Sandy had a strong impact on helping me believe in myself again. It also helped tremendously to know she had my back. It took a number of conversations, but once I was able to believe in her, things started to change”.
Carmine’s path to the military began in high school.
His uncle ignited a fire to serve his country from an early age. “Uncle Bobby served for almost 30 years in the Army. He was a Green Beret; fought in Korea and volunteered for 3 tours in Vietnam,” Carmine explained.
Meanwhile his Dad introduced him to investing and finance when he was 13 years old. So in addition to a desire to serve in the military he also wanted to work in the world of finance as a stock broker. “In high school I was known as the wrestler that walked around with the Wall Street Journal under my arm – I read it every day,” he said.
Right before graduation he decided to join the US Army Reserves as a medic, serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year; while going to college and working an entry level job at a local brokerage firm.
During his first annual two week tour of duty with the 3344th Army Hospital in Tampa Florida, he met (former)US Army Command Sergeant Major Richard Kidd. Although he doesn’t remember exactly what was said, “it was that conversation which motived me to go active duty,” said Carmine.
He quickly discovered that he loved military life and being a soldier.“My family was against it, but the desire to serve was so strong I enlisted anyway,” he said.
Carmine’s first duty assignment was with the 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry, Fort Drum, NY as a Combat Medic.
“I really loved it. It really felt like it was the right thing to do at that time,” he said. “I tell everybody to this day, I not only learned the true meaning of selfless service there, it was where I made the transition from being a know it all kid, to actually becoming a man.”
After a few years a previously unknown hereditary medical condition began taking its toll on Carmine’s knees and back. Soon it got to the point he couldn’t effectively function as a field medic. So when his next re-enlistment window opened, a new chapter began. Carmine was given the opportunity to re-class as a veterinary care technician.
He loved his job and soon decided to take the next step in his military career.
On Sept. 1, 2001 – ten days before the World Trade Center attack – Carmine began leadership training to earn his sergeant stripes at the US Army NCO Academy, located at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. While he was there the world as we knew it changed forever.
Shortly after graduation Carmine was promoted to sergeant and sent to Japan for the next 4 1/2 years. His work there involved providing medical care, education, and support to the US Air Force Security Forces while rotating military working dogs in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then one day during a training incident Carmine suffered further injury to his neck, back, and knees and just like that his military career went into a downward spiral. “This was the beginning of the end,” he said, “it totally ruined my career.”
A medical examination determined he could not meet the medical standard for military duty. He soon found himself going through the medical board process. Unfortunately, in the end it was decided Carmine would be Honorably Discharged and would not continue his military service. “I felt as if they tossed me out like the trash,” he said.
All too soon separation day came.
“The last time I took off my military uniform felt like the worst day of my life. I remember wearing it up to the very last minute prior to leaving for the airport,” Carmine explained. “I really couldn’t see life as anything but a soldier, deep inside I didn’t want to live as a civilian.”
His civilian life was filled with anxiety and depression. He found himself married with two children – son Vincent and daughter Mataya – from a previous marriage, no home, no job, and no college degree. He worked at various sales jobs in financial services, then moved from New Jersey to Florida for an opportunity with a major pet care hospital chain. Less than two years later he was laid off, feeling tossed out with the trash again, he decided to move back to New Jersey to pursue his education and work toward a career in finance.
Carmine enrolled in Centenary College majoring in business management. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2013 with a 3.85 GPA. “I had a purpose again,” he recalls. He continued on to a two-year MBA program completing it in one year with a GPA of 4.0.
Prior to graduation he received an offer from a large financial services company. The position was exactly what he wanted.
“I was so happy to be in financial services and have the ability to help other veterans,” he explained.
It seemed he had finally found a home outside the military, when once again, fate stepped in. His salaried position was eliminated due to cut backs. He was offered a position as an independent contractor, which didn’t add up to much. “I only worked sporadically and I had no health insurance,” he said, “the situation began yet another downward spiral, but this time I felt there was no way out.”
Adding to his stress his wife, Chiyoko, was going to school full time, working full time as a waitress at night, and she was pregnant. “It was extremely tough on her, especially dealing with my issues, but I was so proud of her,” Carmine said.
When the couple welcomed their new daughter, Sophia, into the world their joy was overwhelming but it was soon overshadowed by a very real concern. Their savings was quickly dwindling until one day it was gone – every dollar.
After being pushed by a friend, Carmine finally agreed to swallow his pride and apply for help through the State and a variety of charities. But there was always a problem or issue that would prevent the Costellos from getting the much needed financial help. Either they earned too much from his wife’s waitress job or he was told they needed to have an eviction notice in hand before they could qualify. “It was so frustrating,” he said.
That’s when Sandy and Project Help entered his life.
In addition to emotional support and encouragement Sandy offered immediate financial help in the form of gift cards for food and gas – asking only that when he could, he return the favor for another veteran in need.
So with the return of his confidence and determination Carmine looked for a next step. He recalled being introduced to a few managers from BNY Mellon through a Veterans mentorship program during his MBA program. He remembered thinking that ultimately BNY Mellon was where he wanted to work.
“I loved everything about this company, from its history and its position in the world of finance, to its people,” he said.
He began his pursuit of a job at BNY Mellon and after a few months of trying, he was given the opportunity to do a telephone interview with the company he had grown to love and respect. Although he felt the interview went well, it was weeks before receiving a call for a face to face interview. By the time the call came things had gotten so bad, he didn’t have enough money for gas to get to the interview. “No exaggeration I went through my pockets, every drawer in our apartment, even under the couch cushions looking for change,” he said. It was Sandy that actually provided Carmine with the gas card needed to get to his interview.
Three weeks later he got a call from BNY Mellon offering him a job in Manhattan. The job was part of a Veterans hiring initiative and they were willing to train him in hedge fund accounting. It was like a dream come true but when he did the math he realized he couldn’t afford the commute into the NYC every day. When he explained his dilemma, the company assigned him to it’s office in Woodland Park, NJ.
Just about the time things were turning around for Carmine, Chiyoko graduated college with a degree in accounting. She was offered her dream job as an accountant with a large accounting firm. Carmine and his wife both started their new careers within weeks of each other, proving that hard work and determination pay off.
It’s been almost three years since he started working for BNY Mellon and he could not be happier.
“This company saved my life, they gave me purpose again. I’m so proud to work for a company that is willing to give veterans like myself a chance and look past the traditional resume screening process,” said Carmine.
Since then he has moved to new position in Asset Servicing /Business Development. “I’m part of a team that receives and responds to requests for proposals from both current and prospective clients,” he explained. Carmine is currently working at the corporate headquarters in Manhattan – doing a job he really loves. His wife Chiyoko is also working in Manhattan- doing a job she really loves as well.
Today life is good for the Costello family but it could have all been lost.
Its people like Sandy Mitchell and organizations like Project Help, that can have a life changing impact on helping veterans transition back into civilian life.
“Knowing someone like Sandy and her organization have your back, can be the difference needed to handle any situation that may arise,” said Carmine. “Sandy was there when I was down and out, without two nickels to rub together. With encouragement, positivity and a gas card she helped me turn my life around. I went from unemployed to working a dream job at my dream company.”
Carmine currently donates regularly to various Veteran related charities and has made it a priority to pay it forward. He has served as President and Cofounder of the Centenary University Student Veterans Program and has also served a two year term as the Co-Chair of the BNY Mellon VetNet Program, NY-Tri-State Chapter.
This story has a happy ending but in New Jersey alone there are thousands of veterans that are hungry, homeless and without hope. Please help Project Help to help them. Project Help is a 501c3 all Volunteer Charity. Donations are tax deductible as allowed by IRS law. EIN 81-1804210