The Fireside Visit

The Second Annual Village of Ocean Beach Bonfire, held between the overpasses of Cottage and Dehnhoff Walks on Saturday evening, September 17, was a celebration of neighborhood bonding for all ages. In addition to the impressive bonfire, there were marshmallows to roast, s’more supplies and hand, and DJ tunes curated by Rich Schelling himself.  However, the event was also attended by some special guests. Gene Wu, a Marine Corps veteran who has been a part of several of the Ocean Beach Fire Department’s Warrior appreciation events, brought several of his comrades.

“Once a Marine always a Marine,” said Wu.

            The day began with the Vets being feted at Maguires, followed by an afternoon lolling on the beach… swimming, trading war stories, or fraternizing with members of the Ocean Beach Fire Department, who sponsored this visit.

“Our debt to these folks can never truly be repaid,” said Robert Burke, a captain in the department. “But we can try.”

            Wu’s emphasis in recent years has been the mental damage of war, often more devastating than the physical.

“When I got back stateside,” he said, “VA hospitals took great care of my body, but not necessarily my mind.” When he was last on Fire Island, he said, veterans were committing suicide at the rate of about one an hour. That figure has now slightly improved, said Wu, “but not enough.”

            It took the COVID era, he feels, to truly drill the importance of mental health into the national consciousness.

“Folks used to think, ‘Oh, he or she’s a Vet, of course they’re screwed up.’ But when people started to go nuts during the isolation of Covid, the country suddenly sat up and started paying attention to Mental Health.”

            As night fell, the Vets drifted over to the bonfire, which evoked for some bivouacking in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of them, though, were moved by the sense of community and the massive passionate farewell to summer.

“You guys do this a lot, right?” said one of the veteran guests.

“Not as often as we should,” lamented an Ocean Beach resident.

As the embers died the Vets fell in behind Wu and marched happily and wearily to the ferry. For Burke and his colleagues, it was Mission Accomplished. “We wanted them to know how much we value them,” he said. From the deep urgent hugs given to them at the ferry terminal, our firemen felt the message had been delivered.