The Veterans Breakfast Club is a place where history comes alive through the power of individual stories. It has hosted veterans from World War II to the Global War on Terrorism, from American GIs to the German Wehrmacht, and even the Allies who fought alongside U.S. troops in combat.
The group provides veterans an opportunity to integrate their life stories into the history of their wars and of the military experience in the United States. The Veterans Breakfast Club was founded by Todd DePastino, an author, historian and professor of history at Penn State. He’s not from a military family but founded the Veterans Breakfast Club after experiencing veterans’ personal history during a book tour.
It was a book about the life of Bill Mauldin, a World War II veteran whose comics about two GIs, Willie and Joe, earned him international acclaim. In writing the book, DePastino learned that military culture of the time was different from the civilian world -- and that is still true today.
“As I learned the humor, I learned there was an Army subculture,” DePastino told Military.com. “I realized it was a very distinctive one, different from the civilian world, and that it had certain bonds and benefits and burdens but also a language and values. It brought little pieces of that subculture to the homefront and exposed the folks back home to what the infantry was experiencing.”
The people who came to hear DePastino speak about the role of Willie and Joe in American culture were mostly veterans, especially World War II veterans.
“I was stunned to learn that the Willies and Joes really existed, and that they still do,” DePastino said.
In September 2008, DePastino gave his talk and then turned the microphone over to the audience, which began to share its stories from the war. The conversation lasted three hours, but not everyone got to speak. So the author invited them all back to have another discussion. Some 60 people returned to tell any story they wanted.
Afterward, one of the veterans’ wives approached DePastino.
“She looked me in the eyes and she held my hand and said, ‘Thank you for doing this. I've never heard any of his stories. And we've been married 60 years,’” he recalled. “There's some part of me that still doesn't understand that, but I knew that somehow we had created an environment where veterans felt free to share whatever stories they wanted, in public to people who were attentive, caring, non-judgmental listeners.”
DePastino took that same model and began holding similar events throughout Western Pennsylvania. It came to be called “The Veterans Breakfast Club,” and DePastino held 500 of them before 2020.
“I was doing it because I loved hearing these stories, and I loved the men and women who were sharing them,” he said. “I just loved them like they were family members. These were people I had just met, and they were telling me pretty intimate stories about their lives and about who they were. … There was wisdom, wisdom about the world, about perspective, about personal growth, about aging and about being old in a culture that doesn't really value old age.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced restrictions on group gatherings, DePastino took the discussions to Zoom, where they still happen to this day. While the pandemic keeps people from meeting in person, it opens the virtual floor to any veteran in the country or around the world.
In that time, the club has heard stories from veterans of all eras and branches, and even some of those who fought on the other sides of the war. One guest was a German soldier who fought in World War II. The club recently dedicated an evening to the descendants of Kaiten suicide submariners from the Imperial Japanese Navy.
For veterans, especially those of older generations, it’s a gift.
“To have a veteran come up to me and shake my hand or give me a hug and thank me with tears in his eyes for bringing these programs is too much for me to bear,” DePastino said. “It's hard for me to accept that kind of gratitude, but it signals to me that there's a real need to be heard. … I think the Veterans Breakfast Club is providing that opportunity to veterans who want to take advantage of it.”
The Veterans Breakfast Club is no longer just for breakfast. It’s open to all who want to join the conversation or share their stories of military service. Viewers can join the call via this VBC Zoom link or catch past discussions on the Veterans Breakfast Club YouTube page.
For more information or to donate to the cause, visit the Veterans Breakfast Club website.
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