Lake Waubesa fish may have found themselves being tempted by plenty of lures during the early morning hours of Sunday, June 2, as military veterans and their fishing guides partook in the annual Take a Vet Fishing program.
McFarland resident Rob Blanchar is one of the organizers of the annual event, which has since spread throughout the Midwest. He noted it’s one way to give back to military personnel, including Vietnam veterans.
“They were my mentors when I started (in the military),” he said. “They taught me how to take care of each other.”
Seven years ago, Blanchar, his son, Justin, and Jay Garstecki started a fishing outing on Lake Waubesa for veterans that turned into the nonprofit Take a Vet Fishing.
Blanchar said his favorite part of the program, which has rapidly grown since its inception, has been when the veterans have the opportunity to talk with other veterans.
“We want the veterans to interact. You can see how therapeutic this experience can be for them,” he said.
The program is an instance of one veteran stepping in to thank and help others who served.
Blanchar, 64, joined the United States Marine Corps in 1974, two years after graduating from McFarland High School.
“I wanted to see the world,” he said. “I had never seen the ocean. I wanted to get the experience, and the Marine Corps was always going to be what I went into if I ever joined the service. And I had friends in the Marine Corps and I thought if they can do it, I can do it,” the veteran said.
Blanchar was a jet engine mechanic for the USMC during his four-year stint. Initially, he wanted to take part in a two-year enlistment program as part of the infantry. The McFarland resident was unable to pass the infantry test due to his vision but was informed he could be a jet engine mechanic after scoring high in the mechanical portion of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This would require a four-year commitment on his part.
“The things I learned in the Marine Corps I carried through my whole career,” Blanchar said.
The McFarland resident was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, where he worked on the OV-10 Bronco – a turboprop observation plane – and later transferred to Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii for two years where he was an F4 engine mechanic.
Blanchar said he had fun for the first few months in Hawaii, but it was expensive to live on the island, saying he could get paid on Friday and be broke by Sunday.
While stationed at Kaneohe Bay, he had a six-month deployment to Iwakuni, Japan, where he worked on engine conversions. Blanchar had to test more than 60 engines on a test cell and received a meritorious mast for testing more than 60 engines in less than 60 days.
“It was the best duty station I had,” Blanchar said. “The Japanese people were and still are very supportive of all military.”
While in Japan, he had the chance to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and camped in the mountains during the weekends.
Upon returning to McFarland, Blanchar worked construction until 1984. The decision to return to the military, this time full-time through the federal civil service, occurred when he was completing stucco-work at Truax Field.
“I asked them if they had another engine shop position and they said, ‘Yes, we do,’” he said. “Basically, I went in to work as a laborer and came home with a full-time position with the Air National Guard.”
This came as a surprise of his wife, Sherry.
“I thought he was going to be home in a couple of hours, but then it got to be 3 o’clock and then 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock,” she said. “Then he walks in with this duffel bag of stuff, and he needed all these stripes sewed on before he went back the next day.”
During the early part of his time with the Guard, Blanchar spent a one-month deployment during the Cold War to England and Germany.
“We would go there and simulate war with Russia basically,” he said. “We actually had a hard time getting back home with the A-10 because the first Gulf War was wrapping up. We couldn’t get a ride home, because the cargo planes were taking everything over and we weren’t a priority.”
In 1990, the McFarland man was in charge of a hush house – an aircraft and engine test facility at the Madison Truax Field – as the air force converted to F-16 aircrafts. However, it took 18 months for the hush house to be constructed, so two to three times a month, Blanchar would need to deploy to South Dakota to test the engines and bring them back to Wisconsin before the Madison facility was completed. In 2002, he was promoted to the aircraft engine supervisor for the F110-GE 100 propulsion shop.
Before retiring with the rank of chief master sergeant (the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer) in 2011, Blanchar had four international deployments – once to Qatar in 2006 and three times to Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2007, 2008 and 2009 where he was responsible for all aircraft engine maintenance.
During his time in Iraq beginning in 2006, Blanchar would volunteer for roughly three hours at a field hospital following his 12- to 14-hour work shifts.
“I went to sign up, because they needed help at the hospitals,” he said. “They needed more help in the Iraqi ward where there were Iraqi soldiers and civilians where there were children.”
Blanchar would volunteer in any capacity the nurses from the New York Air National Guard would request, from changing bandages on wounds and monitoring Iraqi soldiers in the intensive care unit to carrying soldiers from helicopters into the emergency room.
The veteran recalled working with a young boy in the hospital, whose parents were killed in a bombing.
“I was actually the first one to get him to eat,” Blanchar said. “I watched him every day for a while, until they needed me somewhere else.”
The veteran’s decision to volunteer at the hospital was to witness what bombs and bullets can do.
“They don’t care who they hit,” he said.
Blanchar said he had a great career with the military and because of the experience, he wants to continue to give back in ways that go beyond Take a Vet Fishing. Thus far, the McFarland resident has helped veterans obtain service dogs, attend the SPARTA Project in California and help facilitate relationships between older and younger veterans.