Supporting Our Veterans

Todd DePastino holding a microphone up to Hartley Baird to share his World War II experiences.
Army Air Corps veteran Hartley Baird shares his World War II experiences with Todd DePastino at a Veterans Breakfast Club event in January, 2019. Baird died in October 2019 at age 95. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the more than 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II are still living.

uthor Todd DePastino’s 2008 book Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front was a biography of the cartoonist whose depictions of life on the front lines during World War II were beloved by G.I.s and earned Mauldin a Pulitzer Prize.

A portrait of Todd DePastino.
Veterans Breakfast Club co-founder Todd DePastino got the idea for the club after receiving lots of feedback on his biography of World War II Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, and from speaking at an event hosted by co-founder Dan Cavanaugh.

Shortly after the book came out, DePastino,  Magnolia Place, began getting calls from World War II veterans from all over, who had stories to share. That same year, he heard from Dan Cavanaugh, who volunteered on bus trips taking veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Cavanaugh invited DePastino to talk at a veterans breakfast group he had organized.

The experience was so rewarding, DePastino and Cavanaugh formed a nonprofit that would allow veterans to gather and share their stories. In September, 2008, the first meeting of the Veterans Breakfast Club took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, with about 30 World War II veterans.

“It’s really blossomed since then,” said DePastino.

Now 14 years old, the Veterans Breakfast Club is way more than just a place for coffee and eggs, but the philosophy has never changed: “Stories unite us.”

The club has a podcast, a blog, a print magazine, a lengthy archive of video interviews and a full schedule of virtual and in-person events. Stories extend far beyond the experiences of World War II, and run the gamut of military service.

“It just grew organically,” said DePastino. “As the veterans shared their stories, we thought ‘We should start recording them.” Often, DePastino says, veterans would say they had never shared any stories of their service before, or would only talk about their service with other vets.

“The military is a subculture, a separate world,” said DePastino. “Anyone who enters the service is changed for life. This is a way for veterans to communicate a little of what that’s like to people who never had the experience. I’m always preaching, this isn’t a veterans-only club. Non-veterans need to join.”

The club holds its breakfast meetings at several venues, the closest being Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Saturday, December 17. Other breakfasts are at the Comfort Inn in Penn Hills, November 18; Christ Church at Grove Farms in Sewickley, November 30; and Seven Oaks Country Club in Beaver, December 7. All breakfasts begin at 8:30, and cost $15.

One unexpected benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reliance on virtual events was the ability to open up the storytelling to a wider audience. The VBC Happy Hour is every Monday evening at 7; Greatest Generation Live is a roundtable discussion of World War II, the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.; and at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, hosted by Pete Mecca in Atlanta.

Two Vietnam vets holding microphones speaking about their experiences.
Navy veteran Rich Zilka speaks about life aboard a Landing Ship, Tank (LST), patrolling the rivers of Vietnam.

DePastino is especially proud of the Greatest Generation Roundtable interviews with Tuskegee Airman Harry Stewart, who flew 43 combat missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross, while also having to deal with systemic racism and another interview with Woody Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. Williams, who died last summer at age 98, earned the medal while serving as a marine on Iwo Jima.

Marlin Drive resident Sue Watson is a founding director of Veterans Helping Veterans, a nonprofit formed in 2020. Veterans Helping Veterans is located on E. Seventh Street in Homestead. Watson, a retired Mt. Lebanon School District teacher, would organize programs for Veterans Day for a course she taught at Mellon Middle School, The World and its People.

Watson, whose father, Jack Watson, served as a marine on Iwo Jima, (and was featured in a Veterans Breakfast Club video interview) believed that in order for her students to understand their own history, they needed to understand what it means to be protected by one of the most powerful militaries in the world.

“So many other countries, looking at their history, they get taken over and why has that never happened to us? Our borders and the oceans are a big reason why, but just as important is our military, and a lot of these kids might know one or two veterans at most. I challenged the kids to find someone who served.”

Watson believes just mouthing phrases like “Thank you for your service” isn’t enough.

“I wanted to go deeper,” she said of her Veterans Day programs. “I wanted to go beyond ‘Happy Veterans Day.’ It’s not just a day. It requires some understanding.”

Watson got the opportunity to do more for veterans when she teamed up with lifelong friend Michael Lisovich to found Veterans Helping Veterans. Lisovich, a retired marine warrant officer, has a few business interests, including Wines of America, a business he took over from his grandfather. The Wines of America basement is headquarters for Veterans Helping Veterans.

A man and a woman sitting at a table outside of the Veterans Helping Veterans in Homestead.
Sue Watson and Michael Lisovich, co-founders of Veterans Helping Veterans.

The organization is growing. Veterans can stop in for a cup of coffee or a snack, and just find a safe place to relax. Representatives from the American Legion,  the Veterans Administration and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) visit regularly. At a recent event, DAV assisted more than 40 veterans with their disability claims.

This summer, Veterans Helping Veterans organized its first wellness festival and memorial ride. Setting up in a space under the Homestead Grays Bridge, the festival hosted representatives from groups such as Veterans Place, which helps with transitional housing, workforce development and a resource center, funded by the VA, which offers shower facilities, breakfast and lunch, a food pantry and many other services.

Also on hand was Pittsburgh Warriors Hockey, a place for veterans with service-connected disabilities to get out on the ice.

Watson has developed some expertise in navigating bureaucratic systems that can prove to be overwhelming.

“Whatever I don’t know, I’ll say ‘I’ll stick with you until we can figure this out,’” she said.

She spoke of the time a veteran came to the center because their wallet had been stolen. Watson walked the vet through the process of getting replacement cards and driver’s license, and also supplied a week’s worth of food to get through the emergency.

Watson says the vibe at VHV is based on the five C’s: Coffee, camaraderie, connection, care and concern.

“Sometimes it’s enough to just say ‘How are you holding up?’”

Mt. Lebanon’s Veterans Day program is scheduled for Friday, November 11, at 4 p.m., at the Mt. Lebanon Veterans Memorial on Cedar Boulevard. Keynote speaker is former Sgt. John Armstrong, who served with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam.