Meet some of the veterans in our region.
Forget the movies and sensationalist news headlines. Hear the real stories. These are just a few of the thousands of veterans whose contributions make our community a better place.
Jake Voelker likes watching things grow, whether it’s his garden or VooDoo Brewing, the craft brewing company of which he is one of the principal owners. But it is what the 33-year-old describes as his “fierce patriotism” that set his current life course. Patriotism motivated him to serve four years of active duty as an Army officer, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and patriotism has shaped his career as an entrepreneur.
Today he’s just as concerned about creating jobs — especially for other veterans — and contributing to the economic growth of communities where his company’s locations are, as he is about his own business success.
A native of Erie, PA, who has lived in different parts of the country, Voelker is also committed to Pittsburgh and praises the region’s innovative and collaborative spirit. He describes leaving the military in 2010 “when the average American city was struggling, and Pittsburgh was really flourishing. The towns [in this region] gave me an instant sense of community that I never really had before.”
Michaela Diallo always looked up to her uncle, a Vietnam veteran proud of his service, even though he acknowledged the struggles he faced back home. Inspired by her uncle and the chance to receive college assistance, she joined the Pennsylvania Air National Guard at age 17. Her service has included a 2008 deployment in Kyrgyzstan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The 33-year-old says that a sense of patriotism and a desire to support her country led her to stay in the Air National Guard where she works in information management. And her commitment to the military has expanded into her civilian life.
Diallo draws on both her service and a degree in counseling and human services in her work at PAServes, which operates out of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. She is a team leader with the organization, which connects local veterans and their families to programs they need, including employment services that direct veterans to jobs where they can use the skills they honed in the military. Diallo also feels a responsibility as a woman and an African American to be a presence in veterans’ groups like PAServes. “As a veteran working in the veteran community who is trying to bring in people of diverse backgrounds, as well as women, I want to show that the benefits that come with being a veteran are for all of us.”
Joel Laudenslager has committed himself to not leaving anyone behind — not youth in under-resourced communities, not Middle Eastern translators who risked their lives to support American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one. Laudenslager’s military career includes deployments in both countries and currently serves as a staff sergeant in the Marine Reserves. He balances volunteering with veterans’ groups like The Mission Continues and No One Left Behind in his civilian job as a Financial Markets, Treasuries and Securities Operations Supervisor at BNY Mellon.
As the Homewood platoon leader for The Mission Continues, Laudenslager, 30, collaborates with community groups on neighborhood and home improvement projects that include and benefit youth. Spurred by the American ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Laudenslager has set high standards for himself and others. As operations director for the Pittsburgh chapter of No One Left Behind, he assists Middle Eastern translators who have immigrated to the region in finding employment, housing and their place in the community. “They are as much veterans as any of us except in name, and I want to do right by them,” he says. “I feel that we have the opportunity and the ability to do right by them here in this city.”
When Nick Grimes was 17, he wasn’t ready to go straight to college. Enlisting in the Army seemed to be a good alternative to sitting in a classroom for another four years. While serving in the military, which included two tours in Afghanistan, he grew to appreciate being part of “something big” and wanted that same sense purpose after leaving active duty in 2011. The Veterans Breakfast Club (VBC) provided the opportunity he was looking for.
Established in 2008 as an organization that offers support and encouragement to veterans in the Pittsburgh region, VBC was originally geared more toward World War II, Korean and Vietnam vets. When Grimes, 31, joined the nonprofit in 2016, his role was to bring post-9/11 veterans into the fold. His work includes organizing evening storytelling events at breweries and restaurants, creating a safe space for veterans to share experiences with other veterans and those who have not served in the military but want to learn more. The gatherings deepen veterans’ roots in the community by showing them that people are invested in their lives.” Grimes adds that VBC also has given him “something to be a part of that is important to someone other than just me.”