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Veterans Cafe's specialty: Serving those who served

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- There's a red, white and blue sign in the window of the Veterans Cafe and Grille that says simply "Welcome Home."

And in the four years that Lou Mascherino and his wife, Rhonda, have operated the cafe, it has indeed become a home of sorts for vets -- a combination diner, military museum and hangout for those who have served America.

The walls and ceiling are crowded with hundreds of items, from photos and uniforms to military patches and flags. And, if veterans can't afford a meal, well, they eat for free.

"That's part of our thing. We won't ever let a veteran go hungry," said Mascherino, who served in the Army for three years back in the 1970s.

The cafe opened on Veterans Day in 2009 at another location nearby in this tourist resort. A short time later, Rhonda Mascherino put an item on the back of the menu suggesting that people bring in 5-by-7 family photos of those in the military. It started as a trickle, but over the months and years people began dropping off items from their closets and attics.

"Almost every day we get something in. People come in and say, 'I've got my grandfather's uniform from World War II,' or 'I've got his picture,' " said Lou Mascherino -- nicknamed Mash.

The cafe opened when staff at the Veterans Welcome Home and Resource Center, a local nonprofit that helps vets tap into government and other resources, thought a small cafe might be a good fundraising tool.

That idea really didn't work out, but Lou Mascherino, who has worked for decades in the local dining industry, decided he would take on operating the cafe. It was touch and go for a while, but now the cafe has found its niche, moving earlier this year into larger quarters.

"Veterans won't talk a lot to people who are not veterans. This place here is like a safe haven," said George Bontya, who visits the cafe a few times a week and served four years in the Air Force, including a tour in Vietnam. "You get a lot of vets who come in here and they will just sit around and talk."

The cafe works closely with the Welcome Home and Resource Center as well as other veterans organizations.

"If a veteran comes in here, Mash will call and the first thing we find out is what their needs are," said Kris Tourtellotte, who founded the resource center, based in nearby Little River, S.C.

Lou Mascherino says he has found his calling in cooking and helping those who served.

"I know a mom-and-pop isn't going to make a lot of money," he said. "As long as we can keep a roof over our head and food on the table at home, that's all I care about." And, at 61, he can't see himself doing anything else.

"I wouldn't know what to do," he said. "I'm here for life."

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