Plenty of rods were bent under the weight of feisty bass, muskie and other fish Sunday morning as over 130 military veterans fished with guides at the third annual Take a Vet Fishing event on Lake Waubesa.
There was also plenty of fishing stories, along with some good-natured ribbing, as the gathering brought together Veterans from all branches of the armed services and different generations together under an overcast sky.
On one boat alone there were veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War.
Rob Blanchar, American Legion Post 534 member and co-founder of Take a Vet Fishing was very pleased with the turnout. He said the event has become a huge success since 27 veterans attended the inaugural event three years ago.
Blanchar, a former U.S. Marine, said the goal of Take a Vet Fishing is “to honor, comfort and assist” disabled veterans and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder - and it did just that.
Veterans gathered at Babcock Park boat launch in the early morning hours and were greeted by over 70 volunteers and guides with boats. Most stepped into a waiting boat, while others fished from wheelchairs on pontoons. They hit the water about 7 a.m. and stayed out until 11 a.m.
The guides, many of whom were veterans themselves, were eager fulfill the event’s slogan - “A Day of Giving Back.” They led the fishing expeditions and let each vet choose what type of fish to go after.
For World War II Veteran Harold Wetzel it was a special experience.
“I don’t get out fishing too much, so it’s was really nice,” said the 90-year-old. “We caught lots of fish too, which is unusual, sometimes you don’t get any.”
For Daniel Juday, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Iraq, fishing trips are nothing new. He took a rod with him on every deployment and fished lakes and rivers in Africa, and Asia. Now, he spends much of his free time trying to hook fish in Wisconsin.
But still, a guided tour on Lake Waubesa was a meaningful experience.
“I fish all the time but to come out to an event with other veterans and guides is fantastic,” Juday said. “It means a lot for these guides to volunteer their time to take us vets out. For all of these veterans who don’t have the opportunity to fish, it means the world to a lot of these guys.”
Along with guide Chris Terry, the two pulled in over 15 largemouth bass and a couple of crappies, while taking friendly jabs at each other in between.
Take a Vet Fishing was a golden opportunity to give back, Terry said. One he wouldn’t miss.
“I missed the first year, so I made sure I was here last year, and I will be back for sure next year,” he said. “This is our way of saying ‘thank you.’ Taking a guy fishing is about the best thing you can do to say thanks to somebody and I love it.”
Blanchar, a former marine, said the event is meant to bring veterans out of their shell. Just being outdoors heals, he said. On the water, the veterans had a chance to just relax and enjoy the serenity of their surroundings.
“Some of the veterans have issues with post traumatic stress disorder, and today you’d never see it and never know it,” he said.
After their morning on the lake, the veterans were treated to lunch, music and a flag ceremony at the American Legion. Over 350 people showed up as family members and friends joined the vets. Each vet also received a gift from sponsors and other awards were handed out.
Former Wisconsin Badger and NFL running back Ron Dayne was a special guest. He spent the day fishing and was then available for photos and autographs at the Legion. He was there with his sponsor Badger Max sports drinks, which also sponsors Take a Vet Fishing. He said when he found out about Take a Vet Fishing, he jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to give back, these guys have done it all for our country and some have almost given their lives for us to be safe back here,” Dayne said. “So you have to tip your hat for that and give them support.”
Take a Vet Fishing has become so popular that organizers have applied for a non profit license and plan to add another chapter each year, starting with an event in Minnesota on Sept. 28.
Over the next several years the plan is to expand into Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, said Jay Garstecki, co-founder and current president of Take a Vet Fishing.
“We’re just getting more and more participation, more vets are learning about it. We’re not going to stop. We’ve got a great thing going,” Garstecki said.
There is no charge to the vets for the events. Take a Vet Fishing even helped pay for gas cards to get some participants to McFarland.
Proceeds from the event go to help fight post traumatic stress disorder.