Sgt. Joe Kowalski (USMC, Ret.) is a man on a mission. The 52-year old, disabled Gulf War Veteran from Cheshire, CT discovered that fishing helped him manage his PTSD. Once Joe realized how fishing was helping him, he figured it could help other veterans, so he started a fishing outreach program.
Named after his lifelong friend, The Maj. Stephen Roy Andrews Fishing Outreach Program is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that funds Kowalski’s fishing trips for veterans and under privileged kids.
I had the pleasure of meeting Joe for the first time back in 2006. At the time, I was working for ESPN/B.A.S.S. and "Sarge" was on an ESPN fishing show called "Rods & Wheels." Sarge and I saw each other at various events over the years, and I bumped into him again at the 2011 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans. I told Sarge about our show concept and asked if I could call on him for some help. Since the TV show was just an idea at the time, I wasn't quite sure what that was going to mean. I just knew that Sarge could lend some insight from a Veteran's perspective, and would be a great supporter of the cause. A few month's later I called Sarge and told him I was sending him a plane ticket to Orlando for a meeting. He came...we met...we fished, and 3 months later we started shooting our Pilot episode of the Ultimate Fishing Experience TV Series. Soon after production began we traveled to Sarge's home in Cheshire, CT to shoot a feature on his fishing outreach program. After spending the week with Sarge visiting VA hospitals and Marine bases and taking veterans fishing, I realized that he was as deserving as anybody of the opportunity to be the featured Hero in his own episode of the show. So we set the wheels in motion to surprise Sarge with his own Ultimate Florida Largemouth Bass Fishing Experience with Bassmaster Elite Seires Pro Bobby Lane.
The show is, in fact, full of surprises and Sarge's reactions speak to the impact they will have on his life and the lives of his fellow veterans. When his episode premiered in January, Sarge inspired a lot of viewers to write in and ask how they could find veterans to take fishing. Some even wanted to know how they could start an outreach program of their own. Since that first broadcast the e-mails and phone calls from viewers wanting to help has continued steadily. Between Sarge and myself, we try to answer them all, but as the e-mails keep coming we need to find a better way of getting info to those of you who are interested in helping.
I can't tell you how amazing it is to know that the show is inspiring people like this. To help make the process easy, we are creating an online resource to connect veterans with people and organizations that are committed to helping.
If you would like to donate a fishing trip or vacation to veterans, check with your local VA, DVA or VFW and tell them what you want to do. If you don't have access to any of those in your area, browse our Helping Heroes page for organizations that can connect you with veterans in your area.
Initially broadcast as the series premiere in January, the episode titled “Fond Memories” features Kowalski bass fishing on the world famous Lake Toho in Kissimmee, FL with Pro Bass Angler, Bobby Lane. If you missed it, tune in tonight and you'll have a chance to meet Sarge and be inspired.
The episode will air again in primetime this Thursday, Feb. 16th at 8:30 pm EST on the NBC Sports Network.