BARTLETT, Ill. – In many circumstances, it doesn’t take much to brighten someone’s day or lift them out of a funk. A kind word, a joke, or even a simple smile go a long way. Rich Belanger knows this, and so do the thousands of people he’s crossed paths with during his 30-year career in the recreational fishing industry. A familiar fixture at trade shows, consumer shows, fishing tournaments, veterans outings and other fishing-related events across the nation, Belanger has earned widespread recognition and respect for his outgoing personality, helpful nature and positive outlook.

Some other people – like the shockingly high number of veterans returning from service to our nation with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental and physical wounds – aren’t lifted up nearly so easily. Belanger knows this, too, as does Take a Vet Fishing and Operation Fishing Freedom Foundation Co-founder, Jay Garstecki.

Belanger spent the past 27 years with the premier American fishing rod manufacturer, St. Croix Rod, which also happens to be a sponsor of Operation Fishing Freedom and a partner with Take a Vet Fishing. “I’m very grateful for my years at St. Croix, but when that chapter in my life recently ended, I came home and had a discussion with my wife. She helped me realize that the thing I was actually going to miss most was working with our nation’s veterans,” relays Belanger, who as Promotions Manager for St. Croix had been working with vets in different capacities for the previous four to five years.

The powers of faith and intention often work in mysterious and powerful ways. “Remarkably, I got up the next morning and received a call from Jay with Take a Vet Fishing and Operation Fishing Freedom,” says Belanger.

“I had heard Rich may be available,” Garstecki recounts, “so I just called him and let him know that I’d love to have him join our team. Rich is knowledgeable, capable and very well respected in our industry. I told him If he was interested, I wanted to try and work something out.”

Belanger (R), Garstecki (Center) and US Army Combat Infantry Veteran, Sgt. (Ret.) Josh Holubz, take a break from filming a recent episode of Operation Fishing Freedom TV.

“I had enjoyed working with Jay and his organizations,” Belanger adds. “He knows my passion for our vets. I was extremely excited and grateful. I just couldn’t believe it, given the revelation I’d had the night before.” Not one to rush into anything, Belanger thanked Garstecki for thinking of him and took some time to unwind, decompress, and evaluate the opportunity with a clear mind. “It didn’t take too long,” Belanger admits. “It really was a no brainer.”

Belanger has been volunteering his time with the two organizations for the past several months, and officially starts as Executive Director for Take a Vet Fishing and Executive Director of Fundraising and Marketing for the Operation Fishing Freedom Foundation on October 19. He will oversee the day-to-day operations of both organizations and advise their boards of directors on development and growth strategies that will help expand programs and events to serve even more veterans and their families.

Take a Vet Fishing is a registered 501 (c) (3) non-profit charitable organization, created in 2011 to provide emotional support and rehabilitation to those who serve our great nation every day. The mission is simple, to show these men and women how much they mean to us and support them and their families emotionally with fishing outings and trips.

“Our slogan is ‘A Day of Giving Back’ and these outings are at the core of our mission,” says Garstecki. “When our brave service men and women return from overseas, as a nation, we have been failing to show these Heroes our appreciation. A shockingly high number of service members are returning with injuries and even the Soldiers without physical wounds are having a hard time adjusting back into the ‘real world’. These Heroes have given so much of themselves for our freedom. Reaching out and offering a thank you with a hand shake, is the very least we can do. At Take a Vet Fishing, we take it a step further, showing them even more gratitude by handing them a fishing rod and a full day of peaceful fun and camaraderie.”

“We will host six Take a Vet Fishing events in 2021, including a new venue in Michigan, an additional Wisconsin stop, which add to existing events in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin,” says Belanger, who explains that they will host either 75 or 150 vets at each event. “For the larger events, we’ll have 80 volunteer fishing hosts and boats on hand, and 40-50 fishing hosts and boats at the smaller events. We provide the gear, guides, food and beverages, prizes, raffles… everything needed for our veterans to come out and enjoy the day. The camaraderie is unbelievable,” adds Belanger, who says the goal is to expand and provide additional events in new states in the future. “We’d like to expand into the East and Southeast, but need to be cautious… 98% of what we do is on a volunteer basis, so we need to have those resources firmly in place.” Over 400 volunteers contributed their time, expertise and other resources to Take a Vet Fishing events last year.

It’s been proven that fishing – through mental relaxation, low-impact exercise and social camaraderie – can help alleviate the effects of PTS, and clinicians are taking notice. While meeting thousands of veterans from across the country at Take a Vet Fishing events, Co-founders and professional anglers, Garstecki and Ben Olsen, had the opportunity to hear hundreds of stories of heroism in defense of our American freedoms – stories that were too good and too meaningful to go untold to the American population – so Operation Fishing Freedom was born.

Operation Fishing Freedom is dedicated to documenting the lives of our US Military Veterans through a unique television program, which currently airs on Discovery Channel and NBC Sports Plus. Each episode of Operation Fishing Freedom TV features a different veteran from all eras of war and service. The stories are told through their eyes and their own words.

Belanger knows there are plenty of potential new TV partners out there who believe in the mission of Operation Fishing Freedom. “We’d like to expand the show to include more episodes that tell the remarkable stories of even more American Heroes each season, but it takes additional resources from new partnerships to be able to do that,” he says. “I’ll be knocking on doors and talking to those companies whose products, brands and corporate philosophies align with our mission of giving back to America’s veterans.

Belanger says there are numerous ways individuals and companies can help. “Currently there are multiple opportunities to support either organization through our websites, and we’re working on additional creative ways that will provide even more options. Any donation, regardless of the amount, goes a long way with our mission and goals to help our nation’s Heroes.

“It boils down to helping the individual vets,” Belanger continues. “22 vets commit suicide every day. That tells me the war isn’t over; the war continues inside of them. That’s not acceptable to me and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone else. With that in mind, that’s exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing – to perhaps help prevent these heroes from going down that path.”

For more information or to help, visit takeavetfishing.org and operationfishingfreedom.com.