Norton Shores resident Eric Wentzloff said two of his biggest passions in life are fly fishing and giving back to the United States' military veterans.
With his non-profit organization Flyin’ Heroes, Wentzloff has found a way to combine both, while also attempting to build lasting relationships with those veterans, who in many cases need a friendly voice to confide with in their daily lives.
Flyin’ Heroes is in its second season of welcoming area veterans to free fly-fishing trips on primarily three local rivers — the Muskegon, Pere Marquette and White — although Wentzloff is open at expanding to other locations.
"I always wanted to find an outlet to give back, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity," said Wentzloff, a Mona Shores High School graduate. "I know that not all wounds that our service men and women are dealing with are visible. Many of them are dealing with a lot that's hidden.
“So yeah, giving them a chance to enjoy an afternoon out on the water is nice, but really, fishing is just a tool that allows us to form something more down the road. It's helps bridge the gap."
Wentzloff realizes that many soldiers, upon returning home from service, are involved in another daily battle of post-traumatic stress disorder. So he made it a point of Flyin’ Heroes to ensure that the fishing trip wouldn't be the last contact he had with the veterans.
"We strive to stay in contact, whether it be a monthly phone call, an e-mail here or there, anything to let them know we're here to support them," Wentzloff said. "We'd enjoy nothing more than building a lasting friendship, but only if that's what they want."
Flyin’ Heroes provided 25 trips with 34 total veterans in its first year, and Wentzloff is hoping to reach another 20 trips this season.
"It's all inclusive," Wentzloff said. "We provide the license, either lunch or dinner and all the tackle. All we ask is they come with the clothes on their back."
Wentloff provides 1-on-1 instruction in the fundamentals of fly fishing.
One veteran who experienced Flyin’ Heroes last October was Bryan West, along with his son, Justin. They each hauled in several nice brown trout on the Pere Marquette River despite it being one of their first times fly fishing.
West has 23 years of military service under his belt, a career that included a deployment to Operation Just Cause — the U.S.'s invasion of Panama in 1989. He was also sent to the Pentagon in the terrifying days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; and most recently, was apart of the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq in 2010 with Operation New Dawn.
Currently, he's on active duty with the Michigan Army National Guard as a recruiter.
It was on a recruiting trip at Duck Creek Learning Center in Muskegon where West first met Wentzloff, who is a teacher at the school.
"We got talking about how I love to hunt and fish, and he invited me to come out," West recalled. "At first, I was hesitant. I don't have PTSD, I'm not hurt, so I thought it should be those guys who should go, not me. But Eric insisted that it's open to anyone."
West eventually accepted the offer and said he and his son enjoyed a tremendous day on the water.
Justin West is following in his father's footsteps, as he recently graduated from medical school in the U.S. Army, and is now stationed at Fort Riley Military Base in Kansas.
"I've been on charter fishing trips before, but it's nowhere close to as personable as this was," West said. "They made that whole trip about me and my son. I can't imagine going on any other guided tour, other than this. I've never been treated like that.
"Eric told us beforehand that 'Even if we don't catch fish, you're going to enjoy it,'" West added. "Normally when someone says that, it means we're not catching anything, but we caught a ton of fish. Plus, the Pere Marquette in October is hard to beat. It's beautiful."
West was so impressed with Wentzloff's program and vision, he decided to join forces.
"I called him up and said, 'Hey, what do I have to do to help out?'" West said.
Today, he's the company's sponsor and donations officer — one of three former veterans who fished with Wentzloff and then insisted they wanted to help the cause. Another is Ferrysburg's Adam Shumaker, who served in the Navy from 1999-2003 and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shumaker is now Flyin’ Heroes' vice president and another trusted guide on the river.
The trips, which typically start in April and run until November, range from four to six hours and are funded through public and private donations or fundraisers. West said that Wentzloff covered many of the expenses out of his own pocket during the first year.
For Wentzloff, the dollars he's spent isn't an issue, considering the special moments he's experienced on the water.
"Every (trip) is different," he said. "Each trip has a special meaning."
One that stands out for Wentzloff is reconnecting three teammates that served overseas and hadn't seen each other in seven years.
"They served several terms together, but lost touch," Wentzloff said. "They were able to re-connect and we brought them out. They were very thankful for the experience and for myself to be apart of something like that, it was monumental."
Wentzloff said he's guided trips for Vietnam War veterans and is hopeful to eventually guide a Korean War vet.
Flyin’ Heroes has partnered with the American Legion Post in Grand Haven, which has provided participants to fish, while serving lunch or dinner to the party after the trip.
"It's a great partnership," Wentzloff said.
Wentzloff said the program is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in booking a trip, or becoming a sponsor can do so by visiting Flyin’heroes.org, or e-mailing Wentzloff at email@Flyin’heroes.org.