Fishing with Vets brings vets and volunteers together, even when fish aren't biting

On Gull Lake in Brainerd sit some of the most rugged guys you'll ever meet.

It's 17 below, but nobody's whimpering about the windchill, or whining about the one fish they've caught all day.

Nobody really cares, because nobody's really here for the fishing.

"Did a couple tours, two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan," Justin Bailey says. "So just got out and found this group and brings back the comradery."

The group, called Fishing with Vets, started just a few months ago with a couple hundred members on a Facebook page. Within weeks, more than 1,000 others jumped onboard.

The big draw here is the real-time connections between volunteers and vets.

One of the group's youngest volunteers, 20-year-old Zacceus Ronning, says, "When a vet messages me on Facebook, I'll ask him, 'How late do you want to be out?' They say, 'I don't care.'"

"Well, I'm like, 'Ok. I'm bringing two cots and we're sleeping on the ice in a popup,'" he adds.

A National Guard member himself, Ronning has been taking vets out on the lake every day for the last three months. That's a lot of time to bond.

"Basic training stories and when people screw up in the military we make a bunch of jokes about it," he says.

It's also a lot of time to say nothing at all.

"When we're talking and I see their facial expressions change, I know to let go, not push it," Ronning says.

Bailey is also both a veteran and volunteer.

"Coming into the civilian world, people don't really understand... [you] come to these guys and you don't know them personally, but you automatically have a bond even if you just met for the first time," he says.

Bailey's buddy, Justin Grecco, is the leader of this all-volunteer organization.

"We're a forum for a guy to say, 'I have an open seat in my boat' or 'I have an open seat in my fish house' or 'I have an open seat in my car... Let's go fishing.' That's what we're about," Grecco says.

It's a simple vision with profound results.

"There's a gentleman up there this past weekend that had quite an embrace with me and he's just like, 'Man, thank you.' And that warms your heart," Grecco says.

Members of Fishing with Vets share a vision to create life-long, life-changing connections. And by the looks of it, mission accomplished.

For more information, check out Fishing for Vets' website here.
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