Profiles in Courage
Meet three South Bay military veterans … their stories may be unique, but the honor of service to their country binds them in brotherhood.
Written by Darren Elms | Photographed by Lauren Pressey
“I was always drawn to books, movies and toys, as a young kid, that involved soldiers or anything military-related,” shares El Porto resident Nick Denny, a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army who completed his service at the rank of captain. “Once I entered college at the University of Minnesota, I started to feel that it was my duty to serve this country and do my part to give back. I also thought it would be an adventure that would push me out of my comfort zone and make me better.”
At 19 he walked into the recruiting office at his school and signed up for the Army ROTC program and a National Guard unit. He went on to ROTC basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and graduated in August of 2001, a month before the 9/11 attack.
Prior to leaving for a four-month Infantry Officer Basic Course in Fort Benning, Georgia, Nick’s Minnesota National Guard unit received orders to deploy to Kosovo for peacekeeping operations. “Our unit spent about nine months in Kosovo working with the locals to maintain a safe and secure environment between Serbs and Albanians,” he says. “I had the good fortune of leading the men of the first platoon. They were a great group of guys with many years of military experience between them who were away from families and jobs to serve their country.”
After returning home from deployment in the fall of 2004, Nick moved to California to escape the frozen tundra of Minnesota and start a career. Once a month and two weeks in the summer, he would fly back to Minnesota to continue training as part of his eight-year obligation to the Army National Guard before eventually transferring to an infantry unit in the California National Guard.
About 10 years ago he switched careers from pharmaceutical sales with Pfizer to selling orthopedic implants with Stryker. Only nine months into his new job with Stryker, Nick received a phone call that he would be deployed to Iraq.
“I was going to be the interim company commander in charge of 200 soldiers brought in from units all over the state until the actual company commander finished training,” he says. “We were called up as a part of the ‘surge’ strategy put in place by General David Petraeus to stabilize Iraq and create conditions that would allow the Iraqi government and army to provide security and stability in the future.”
After several months of training in the U.S. and Kuwait, he began his yearlong deployment in Baghdad, Iraq. “We were stationed at the large base at the Baghdad airport and conducted a bunch of decentralized, squad-based missions consisting of security patrols, detainee operations, courthouse protection operations and even guarding a school for detained Iraqi children,” he shares. “By this point the surge was in full swing, and the country was the most secure it had been in years.”
He notes that a significant portion of his unit had deployed to Iraq a few years prior and saw extensive, sustained combat operations in one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq. “Our deployment was much less intense than that, and though I am proud to have served in Iraq, I didn’t sacrifice anything at all compared to so many great soldiers, Marines and airmen who experienced things we could not even comprehend … great volunteer heroes of this country who were injured or killed and had their futures taken from them—all for the United States of America.”
After successfully completing his mission, he returned home in 2008. Back at Stryker and having worked in health care for the last 11 years, Nick believes the men and women who have served our country deserve the best health care this country has to offer.
“This isn’t happening right now,” he says. “I have seen how the best surgeons and hospitals run, and it is in stark contrast to what the VA looks like. VA leadership needs to be changed, and there needs to be a focus put on how to fix the system and give veterans the same care a wealthy patient at Cedars-Sinai receives.”
Living in Manhattan Beach with his girlfriend, Abby, Nick says his service taught him to appreciate life and not sweat the small, insignificant issues that come up every day. “Traffic was terrible? Get over it. Be thankful you can drive. You had to work late? No one cares. Be thankful you have a job. You only have 300 Instagram followers? Good for you, I have 26,” he says. “I now try to take advantage of every day and appreciate how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place, in such a great country.”
Written by Amber Klinck | Photographed by Jeff Berting
After a 15-year career in the United States Marine Corps, Luis Castro has redirected his energy toward making legal services accessible to all. The youngest son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Luis was raised in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up with the challenges of a strained home life and a neighborhood that didn’t always present the best path, he did everything he could to stay focused on building a better future for himself.
“I started working when I was 9 delivering newspapers,” Luis notes. “But for a lot of kids, it wasn’t about getting a paper route. It was about standing on the corner selling drugs. That’s the reality of the environment I grew up in.”
Today, living in Rancho Palos Verdes with his wife, Emily, the father of four has come a long way from his arduous past. Drawing on his career in the Marines, an undergraduate degree in business management from Pepperdine University, a master’s degree from Webster University and multiple paralegal certificates from Cal State Dominguez, Luis created a new life for himself through a series of deliberate and strategic choices.
He was the first in his family to go to college. He started own business, Superior Court Docs. But for Luis, the first influence that would greatly shape his future was athletics. “Once I found sports, that was it,” he notes. “The very first sport I played was baseball, which eventually led me to boxing. I didn’t stop boxing until my daughter was born; that’s how much I loved it.”
Excelling athletically, Luis dabbled in just about everything. Unfortunately, he did so with little support from his family. “My mother wasn’t supportive of athletic goals; she wanted me to work,” Luis notes.
Luckily he was surrounded by another group of adults who encouraged his athletic and educational aspirations: his coaches. “I owe everything in my youth to them,” he explains. “If something needed to be paid for, shoes or equipment, or if something needed to be signed in order for me to play, they took care of it.”
With their support, Luis became a scholarship athlete. “The problem was, even though I was receiving athletic scholarships, I’d still have to pay for my living expenses and meals in the off season. And I had no financial support .” When Luis factored in the time it would take to devote to the sport he was playing while keeping up with his studies, there was little time left to work. “That’s when I thought about joining the military,” he says.
The decision to join the Marines not only paved the way for Luis’ academic future, it also laid the groundwork for who he would become as a man. “I learned so much as a Marine—from life lessons to managerial skills to fiscal responsibility,” he says. It was also during his service that Luis met Emily, his wife of 20 years, who was also a Marine. “We met while serving in Okinawa, Japan,” she says with a smile.
As the founder of a 100% veteran-owned business, Luis is now serving in another way. “We provide legal services to both the general public and law firms,” he explains. “We don’t file documents, and we don’t serve. What we do is offer highly sophisticated legal research and judicial council from motions and pleadings to document preparation.”
By providing traditional paralegal services without the high cost of attorney fees, the ability to obtain legal counsel becomes considerably more attainable for those who are budget-conscious. “We saw a need for this early on,” Emily notes. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford a $2,500 retainer and $375 per hour for an attorney.”
“The legal system was not solely established for the wealthy,” Luis adds. “The legal system was established for everyone, no matter if they are rich or poor. And everyone has the right to represent themselves without having to retain an attorney. offers a way to level the legal playing field so that anyone may be able to right a legal wrong or defend themselves in court without the additional stress of having to hire an expensive attorney.”
In business since 2008, Luis has channeled all of the determination that made him a successful athlete, student and Marine into his profession. “You don’t have to be the best at anything,” he says. “You have to want to be the best. And I’ve always wanted to be the best at everything I do.”
Written by Diane E. Barber | Photographed by Stephan Cooper
An image of a Purple Heart U.S. military medal conjures up thoughts of valor, respect, intrigue and American pride. And when you have the privilege of listening to a distinguished recipient of this high honor tell his or her story behind it, an awe-inspiring journey into the past will likely unfold and reframe your perception of some pages in history. Such was the case for me when I took the time to ask my neighbor about the Purple Heart designation on the license plate of his car.
Frank Sesno, a veteran and Palos Verdes resident, received his Purple Heart while serving in the U.S. Army led by General George Patton during World War II. He was an 18-year-old civil engineering student at The City College of New York and was living in Brooklyn when he was drafted in the spring of 1944.
Frank went to Fort McClellan in Alabama for boot camp, and after 17 weeks of basic training he returned to New York to board the Queen Mary (now anchored in Long Beach) for an August transatlantic voyage to the United Kingdom in the company of roughly 15,000 other soldiers. Upon arriving in Scotland, he traveled by truck to England and from there was deployed to France. The young college man from New York soon found himself in the trenches in the fight against Germany—an experience that forever changed his life.
In December of 1944, Frank’s army unit was sent to relieve General Patton’s troops caught in the historic Battle of the Bulge—the largest battle fought on the western front during the war. During Hitler’s failed attempt to divide the American and British allies by a surprise attack into France and Belgium through the Ardennes Forest, nearly 90,000 allied soldiers were lost. Frank’s parents received a notice that he was among those who were missing before he was found alive—covered in mud in freezing temperatures while suffering from a severe gunshot wound in his leg.
“Army personnel traveled in groups of four, and after being under fire by German guns and mortar, I was the only survivor of my group. Air support was not available because of the weather , so I was strapped to the hood of a jeep and taken to a field hospital where shrapnel was removed from my leg and I was sewn up. I was then transferred to a French hospital where I was ironically attended to by German POWs.”
Frank spent three months rehabilitating and received his Purple Heart without fanfare while in the hospital. Then in March of 1945 he was put on limited duty to serve as a military police officer in France until the following spring. “In those days we were patched up and expected to carry on,” reflects Frank.
He traveled home on a victory ship in May of 1946 and returned to college. Rather than continuing to pursue an engineering degree, his post-military majors were psychology and education. After receiving a master’s degree in both, he worked as a hospital psychologist for several years before embarking upon a career with a company that published educational textbooks.
Frank and his wife, Alice, always enjoyed being near the ocean in Long Island, so when his employer was expanding into Southern California, they saw this as an opportunity to enjoy year-round coastal living. After reading an article about Palos Verdes in a 1973 issue of Town & Country magazine, they relocated to the South Bay and Frank eventually started his own publishing business.
Today Frank is retired and is enjoying family time and traveling. Though the chapters of his career and military service are closed, his Purple Heart lives on. It adorns a wall in the Sesnos’ home (along with a Bronze Star and several other medals of honor) and is celebrated with a commemorative plaque in the Purple Heart Museum in New York. Images of it capture the curiosity of onlookers on his license plate, and it remains emblazoned upon the essence of the man he is today.