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.
To say the military is in Paul Abernathy's blood would not be an overstatement. Not only is military service generational in his family - his great-grandfather was in World War I, his grandfather was in World War II, and both of his parents were in the Army - he was born on the Fort Carson Army Base in El Paso County, Colo.
And at 17, he also joined the Army. He served for eight years, including a tour in Iraq and attaining the rank of staff sergeant before leaving in 2004.
Today, the Rev. Paul Abernathy is a priest in the Orthodox Christian Church and director of the community nonprofit FOCUS Pittsburgh, a chapter of the Orthodox Church's FOCUS North America program. FOCUS - Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter - is dedicated to alleviating poverty. Raised with a strong sense of service to country and others, and a belief in the principles of "liberty and justice for all," Rev. Abernathy believes his military experiences helped prepare him to work with residents who experience social, emotional and financial hardships.
"I learned [about] the power of compassion in a war torn nation. I learned how important it is to lead with love for the people under me," he said. "Right now, our work is in 'trauma informed community development.' This is essentially working to build resilience in communities that have been inundated with trauma. I learned a great deal about the power of resilience in the face of trauma in the Army."
Rev. Abernathy began working to establish FOCUS Pittsburgh following his graduation from seminary in 2010, and officially launched the center in 2011. Five years later, after serving as an ordained deacon, he became an Orthodox priest while continuing to lead the community organization. Putting lessons from his faith and military experience into practice has proved to be a rewarding combination for him.
"It is an incredible privilege to witness those who suffer not only begin the healing process for themselves but also work to heal their community," he said.
When Patti Gerhauser joined the Navy in 2007, she was a 19-year-old looking to travel the world, take advantage of military education benefits and become part of something greater than herself.
She served in the Persian Gulf with Operation Enduring Freedom, supporting military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the Gulf of Aden conducting counter-piracy operations. She became a petty officer, and after three years, she returned to the U.S. with a broader, better informed view of the world and an ability to think on her feet and analyze situations to make good decisions - skills that have served her well as a community organizer in Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood.
"My time in the military forced me to learn to be more assertive, to speak up and share my opinion and perspective confidently," said Gerhauser, who works with the Hazelwood Initiative, a nonprofit community development organization. "It shaped my perspective in a way that helps me to be a better advocate for the residents that I serve in Hazelwood… The military also taught me the importance of working collaboratively and forming partnerships in order to achieve success."
Gerhauser's previous work included serving as a conflict resolution specialist in the Erie, Pa., public school system. She later became a Hazelwood Platoon member with the veterans community service organization The Mission Continues, and currently is the Platoon Leader. Through her involvement with the Hazelwood Platoon, she has helped to bring additional resources to the community while establishing and building trust in the neighborhood.
As part of the Hazelwood Initiative, Gerhauser and her colleagues work collaboratively with community partners to ensure that there are adequate services and resources in place to support residents, especially those who are most vulnerable to displacement and the negative effects of gentrification.
"I can't say enough about the community members that I work with on a daily basis. They have taught me so much and have been so gracious to allow me to serve the community alongside them in this capacity," she said. "This is some of the hardest work that I've ever done, and it definitely has its ups and downs, since nothing about change is ever easy. That being said, there's no greater feeling in the world than knowing that your work contributed to improving someone else's life."
Diligent service is important to Shawn Wray. He sees it as the common thread in his work - both civilian and military.
"My current job requires me to think creatively, take process-based approaches to problem solving, coordinate large efforts across the organization, communicate effectively - and deliver," he said in describing his responsibilities as a senior risk and control manager at PNC Financial Services Group. "Improving the quality of risk management in the bank better serves our customers. My experiences in the military have helped me to better understand…how to plan and prepare to mitigate risk."
Wray, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, joined the Army when he was 18. At the time, he wasn't ready for college but wanted to do something significant with his life. He later graduated from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned as an infantry officer. His service included a tour in Iraq, and he achieved the rank of first lieutenant.
After leaving active duty in 2006, Wray became a teacher and a coach for wrestling and lacrosse at The Kiski School, an all-boys, college preparatory boarding school near Pittsburgh. Following several years of teaching, he was activated by the National Guard to support homeland security missions. When that assignment ended, he joined the crisis management team at PNC, one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the United States. His current team leads the assessment of operational risk for products and services.
Wray credits the military with helping him learn the discipline and leadership skills that have enabled him to accomplish the responsibilities of his various civilian roles, and instilling in him values to do his work with integrity, accountability, mental agility and resilience.
"The military invested in me and continues to do so. I've been in over 19 years and I'm still learning," Wray said. "The military helped me grow up, but also shaped me into the leader and person I am today."
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.”