North Huntington VFW open house facilitates support, camaraderie
Like many veterans, Warren Watson has plenty of tales to tell from the years he spent in combat during World War II.
But sharing those experiences with people who never have been to war can be difficult, said the Army veteran, 89, of Ardara.
“There's a lot of misconceptions about what it was like to go to war and be on the front lines,” said Watson, who served as an Army machine gunner in Italy, France and Germany between 1943 and 1945. “People try to understand what we went through, but about the only ones who really can are the guys who were over there.”
Watson was among the nearly 100 veterans who gathered at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 781 in North Huntington last Thursday morning for an open house that organizers hope will become a regular event.
Watson, who is the post's chaplain, said getting together with other veterans can help heal the emotional scars left by war.
“I feel like I was able to get over the war because when I got back home, I was so busy working to support my family,” he said. “But even after all these years, there are things that get to me.”
Watson said he recently watched a documentary about the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and “cried like a baby” when he was reminded of what he witnessed as a member of the liberating forces.
Post Commander Don Kattic, 81, a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War, said he organized the informal gathering so local veterans can feel like there is a place where they are welcome and find some support and camaraderie.
“Not every veteran feels like their service was appreciated, especially the ones who served in Korea and Vietnam,” he said. “But the people in this room today appreciate their sacrifice.”
Tom Keaton, 67, of North Huntingdon, who was in the Marine Corps from 1965 to 1969 and served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, said meeting regularly with other combat veterans can help “relieve some of the post-war stress” soldiers often experience.
“Here, you can talk about things with other veterans that you might not feel comfortable talking about to your family,” said Keaton, who was a sergeant and serves in the Post's honor guard.
Local artist Bob Battiston, 67, who was rejected for military service during the Vietnam era for medical reasons, helps keep alive the memory of local troops who died in combat by including plaques in their honor among the extensive collection of military memorabilia he regularly displays at veterans events.
“I couldn't serve, but I respect the sacrifice that so many others made,” Battiston said. “This is my way of honoring them in some small way.”
Battiston said he never fully understood how poorly some veterans were treated when they returned home until about 15 years ago, when he tried to shake a Vietnam War veteran's hand.
“I put my hand out and said, ‘Welcome home,' but he pulled away,” Battiston said. “He said: ‘Nobody ever welcomed me like that, not even my parents.' Then he broke down in tears.”
Kattic's grandson, Tommy Quealy, 21, of North Huntingdon came to the open house to honor the service performed by the veterans who attended.
“It's so great to see all the different branches of the military represented here,” said Quealy, who is in training to be a Marine Corps officer. “I have the utmost respect for these men and wanted to be here to show it.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2360, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.