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Fishing Outreach Program Helps Veterans ‘Cast Off’ Stress: “I Love Being Of Service!”

Veteran Joe Kowalski found a way to turn his hobby into healing for other vets too!

“Breathtaking!” retired Marine Sgt. Joe Kowalski sighed, admiring the scenery as he cast his fishing line from his boat on Connecticut’s Candlewood Lake. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the fish were biting.

Steve would have loved today, Joe thought, recalling his childhood buddy, Steven Andrews. The two had fished together regularly, dreaming of the great trips they’d take after they both retired from the military. But when that day came, after just their first bass fishing trip, Steve had died of a heart attack. The loss of his pal hit Joe hard. And suffering with physical and emotional scars after his 13 years of service in the Marines, Joe grew stressed and angry.

The one thing that brought him calm and peace was fishing. The weight would just lift off his shoulders.

“You should do more of that,” his VA counselor advised…a prescription that proved to be Joe’s salvation.

Now, as his boat rocked in a gentle wake, Joe found himself pondering, If fishing makes such a difference for me, could it help other veterans who are suffering too?

Peace and tranquility

Joe knew of programs that took groups of veterans out fishing for the day. Those trips made for a great memory, but Joe wanted to do more. He wanted to teach his fellow veterans about the therapeutic benefits of fishing, to have them experience fishing’s peace and tranquility, to have it become a tool for healing. And as he mulled it over, he got an idea.

What if I could get tackle companies to donate gear, take vets fishing, teach them how and then send them home with the gear so they can keep fishing…keep the therapy going? Joe wondered.

Fishing helps veterans find a sense of calm
Fishing helps veterans find a sense of calmJoe Kowalski

Joe dubbed his project the Major Steven Roy Andrews Fishing Outreach Program ( in honor of his childhood friend, and before long, he had enough support from the fishing community to launch his program.

Joe put up flyers in VA hospitals announcing his fishing trips and immediately began hearing from men and women eager to take him up on his offer to hit the open waters.

Rafael Reyes, a 78-year-old disabled Army and National Guard veteran, and his VA buddy, Edwin Quinones, 62, who was left 90% disabled from his service in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, were among the first to participate.

Since 2008, Joe has helped hundreds of veterans (like Rafel, shown here) find hope and healing through the Fishing Outreach Program
Since 2008, Joe has helped hundreds of veterans (like Rafel, shown here) find hope and healing through the Fishing Outreach ProgramJoe Kowalski

“There’s nothing like being out on the water with no worries and no one to bother you,” Rafael marveled to Edwin after their first trip with Joe. They both found the sport so relaxing that they began spending many hours at the lake near Rafael’s house. “We fish and delve deep into topics we can’t talk about with anyone else but another vet,” Rafael says.

Healing hobby

Sergeant First Class Julie Varga also fought in Iraq, and currently serves in the Army Reserves. The pandemic elevated her stress level, and when her case worker suggested, “Why don’t you go fishing?” she thought, Why not?

“Fishing with Joe was great,” Julie recalls. “Joe put me back in touch with my love of nature.” After her trip, she started taking long hikes. “It gets me out of my head and lowers my stress levels. And when I can’t deal with things, I have my good friend Joe to call, someone who understands and is always there.”

Fishing Outreach Program helps all vets
Joe’s Fishing Outreach Programs helps all vets like Sergeant First Class Julie VargaJoe Kowalski

Iraq veteran Mike Kelsey received a medical discharge due to back injuries. He also suffers from PTSD. “I was drinking heavily…my wife left me and took the kids,” he shares. “Another vet invited me to a fishing tournament, and from there I learned about Joe’s program.”

For Mike, fishing with Joe reminds him of long, lazy childhood afternoons bait and bobber fishing with his dad. “Those happy memories started me on my path to healing,” says Mike, who recently celebrated five years of sobriety. “Joe literally saved my life,” he insists. Deeply grateful, Mike is now passing the gift forward by taking other wounded warriors on fishing trips near his Virginia home.

“My greatest joy and honor is being of service to other veterans,” says Joe (second 
from left) Founder of Fishing Outreach Program
“My greatest joy and honor is being of service to other veterans,” says Joe (second from left)

Since 2008, Joe has taken over 350 WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans fishing on the boat he christened “Our Dream,” another nod to the fishing dreams he and Steve had hoped to live out together. “Getting out on the water fishing relaxes me more than any counseling session,” Joe says. “I love sharing the sport that means the world to me and also getting to be of service to fellow veterans.”

For more powerful stories about veterans, keep reading…

Garden of Hope: One Mother’s Mission to Help Marine Son & Other Veterans Heal and Grow

One Woman Provides Service Dogs For Veterans: “They Help Save Lives!”

Country Singer and Purple Heart Recipient Scotty Hasting Reflects on Hope, Healing and the 80th Anniversary of D-Day

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