Herschel Fagan served his country for four years in the Army and then four more as a Marine. On Sunday, he and other at-risk veterans were the ones being served.
A group of Marines from the base at Twentynine Palms — in town for a Memorial Day salute during the Padres-Cubs baseball game — spent the early morning dishing up scrambled eggs and sausage patties to veterans and other residents at downtown's St. Vincent de Paul Village.
"I think it'll boost the morale of a lot of the former military guys to see these Marines," said Fagan, 56.
"And it's good for the active-duty guys too. It's good for them to see that some of the things they've heard about the homeless are not true," he said. "We're not all alcoholics, drug-users, irresponsible."
Of the 900 people or so living at St. Vincent de Paul, 167 are veterans. The facility provides transitional housing for the homeless or people at risk of being homeless. It also provides addiction treatment, healthcare, job training, and education and parenting classes.
There are close to 1,500 homeless veterans in San Diego — about 17% of the city's homeless population — a survey last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs found. That was a 15% drop from 2012.
Officials have attributed the decline to improved outreach by the VA, a boost in transitional housing funds by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and efforts by nonprofits like the Veterans Village of San Diego. That organization sponsors an annual "Stand Down" event, where homeless veterans can receive a variety of services and learn how to access military and other benefits.
Still, as a region with major Navy and Marine Corps bases and a large veteran population, San Diego has one of the highest numbers of homeless veterans in the country. And with the military downsizing and the economy in recovery, homelessness among veterans could easily increase, officials said.
Diane Stumph, the interim head of Father Joe's Villages and its partner St. Vincent de Paul Village, said she hoped that the Marines' brief visit Sunday reassured the veterans and civilians in need that society had not forgotten them.
"Be sure to have a plan for your life after military service," Joseph Rhoads, 59, who was in the Navy from 1972 to '75, told several Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment. The "Thundering Third," one of the most combat-tested battalions in the Marine Corps, finished its latest deployment to Afghanistan in October.
Surveying the dining room, Rhoads joined Fagan in being upbeat: "This is an honorable thing they're doing, very honorable."
Anthony Walker, 55, a Marine veteran and unemployed big-rig and tow-truck driver, said seeing the young Marines made him remember his days in the Corps.
"It brings back the camaraderie, what life used to be like for me, a long time ago," he said.
Several of the Marines who worked the chow line are due to leave active duty soon.
Marine Cpl. Matt Cottrell, 26, of Twinning, Mich., said he planned to attend the University of Michigan once he was out of the service. Mathew Wronski, 23, a Navy corpsman, is planning to study biblical counseling.
The battalion's chaplain, Navy Lt. Travis Jewell, who arranged the working visit, said he hoped that the Marines present Sunday take with them the idea that service to others does not end with the completion of military duty.
"These are young men who have served and seen a lot," Jewell said. "Now they're serving in a different capacity."