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Long Beach Waterfront Warriors welcome wounded veterans

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The day after Thanksgiving 2010, Justin Gaertner, a 21-year-old lance corporal in the Marines, was patrolling for mines in the Marja district in Afghanistan when an improvised bomb, stuffed in a glass jug, exploded beneath his feet.

Gaertner lost both of his legs.

Now 32 and living in Tampa, Fla., he visited Long Beach last week to attend the annual celebration hosted by the Waterfront Warriors, who provide wounded veterans with a week of activities, including a stay at the Allegria Hotel.

On Sunday, more than a dozen of those vets gathered in the parking lot of the Long Beach Regional Catholic School for a barbecue, which followed a parade along West Beech Street. When Gaertner wheeled himself into the parking lot, the other vets lined up and applauded. The former Marine gave them a snappy salute.

Gaertner, who came to Long Beach with his wife, Paige, 30, enlisted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As of earlier this month, 4,418 U.S. military personnel had died in Afghanistan, and as American troops rapidly withdraw, following President Biden’s orders, the Taliban have taken over large sections of the country.

Still, Gaertner said, the effort was worth it. “We showed them not to mess with the U.S.,” he said. “They’re not going to touch U.S. soil again.”

The veterans were led into the schoolyard by a pipe and drum corps, and then treated to a lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers. They all had memories to share.

Sam Roca, 73, of Long Beach, served in the Air Force in Vietnam in the late 1960s as a military policeman. “I was a young kid,” he said as he handed out T-shirts to a crowd of people who had come to show their support for the veterans. In Vietnam, he volunteered to work at an orphanage, where he watched Vietnamese children take their first taste of American ice cream.

“They didn’t know how cold it was,” he chuckled.

But as the war went on and the casualties mounted, Roca soured on the effort. When he came home in 1970, he didn’t talk about his experience. “I didn’t tell anybody” about being there, he said. Was Vietnam worth it? “Hell, no,” he said. “Nixon lied about everything. Westmoreland lied also,” he said referring first to President Richard Nixon, and then to Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

The feeling among a number of the Vietnam-era vets was that America had no business getting involved in that war. Donald Simmons, 74, an Army veteran who earned two Purple Hearts during his Vietnam service in the late 1960s, said he has one overriding emotion about it all: “I’m glad I made it home,” he said.

“It wasn’t worth it at all,” Simmons said. “It started off as a noble deed.” But the U.S.’s partner in the war, the South Vietnamese army, did not appear willing to fight, he said.

Still, Simmons said, his youngest son, Christopher, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served two tours of duty in Iraq. Simmons and his wife, Hilda, said they were very proud of their son.

Doug Dervin, 67, of Massapequa, served four years in the Navy, leaving in 1977. He was aboard a troop transport that took Marines to Vietnam’s shores so they could join the battles. “Some of my friends didn’t come back,” Dervin said.

Mark Meyer, 55, of East Atlantic Beach, served in the Navy for 33 years. His last tour was in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, in 2016. He was philosophical about his service. “I did what I was ordered to do,” he said.

Jerry Snell, president of the Long Beach Waterfront Warriors, said that the event started in 2008, after he and John McLaughlin, a New York City firefighter, visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and wanted to do something for wounded veterans.

The nonprofit organization arranges a weeklong vacation in Long Beach for the veterans and their families, who stay at the Allegria. The week includes a trip to the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center, surfing lessons with Skudin Surf, a fishing trip and a concert on the beach, among other activities.

“They love it,” Snell said.