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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A nonprofit organization that connects veterans and first responders with the outdoors has a new home in Delafield


Wisconsin Masonic Journal April 2020

Bending Branches’ Articles

Wisconsin Hero Outdoors: Connecting Vets & First Responders to the Outdoors

Wisconsin Hero Outdoors serves Wisconsin military veterans, first responders and their families by connecting them to the outdoors and outdoor activities…

wisconsin outdoor hero kayaker

Born in 2016, the folks who began Wisconsin Hero Outdoors (WHO) recognized two things:

  • Veterans and first responders—as well as their families—have both physical and mental challenges from the stress of service.
  • The outdoors and outdoor activities are a natural balm that helps with healing, relaxing and otherwise helping them face these challenges.

WHO’s mission is:

“To help connect Veterans, First Responders and their families to outdoor activities in Wisconsin while partnering with organizations that have a similar mission. Our goal continues to be assisting effective programs and encouraging new opportunities within our organization.”

This year they developed a partnership with Lakewood WWV Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This beautiful property has a private lake, golf course and sports activities available to provide a retreat location for these families.

There and in other locations, WHO is dedicated to using proven alternative therapies like kayak fishing, ice fishing, horses, archery, hunting, biking and golf. They work with the Veterans Administration, doctors, therapists, and a host of related non-profits to serve these heroes.

One supporter of WHO, a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force, wrote this:

“While discussing complementary and alternative therapies with a group of veterans that I meet with regularly, a common theme that I found with all of them was a love and passion for the great outdoors. They were telling me whether it was fishing, hiking, kayaking or simply sitting in the outdoors, it all made them feel more at ease with their PTSD…

“The problem was that only one of those veterans had found a veteran group to participate in that shared their interest for the outdoors.” (source )

Now that he knows about WHO, he’s able to refer the veterans he knows to their events and help them on their way to healing.

helping a kayaker get set

Co-founder, Eric Falkner, is himself a veteran and firefighter. Career-ending injuries forced him to leave service. He shares:

“I was introduced to (co-founder) Jason Bartol while going through treatment at the Milwaukee VA, and after going kayak fishing with Jason and other veterans and first responders, I was hooked. The camaraderie and outdoor activities did nothing short of save my life.” (source )

“There is no quick fix when it comes to mental or physical health. Wisconsin Hero Outdoors provides a setting for our Heroes and family members to relax and just ‘be’ without any expectations.

“Being outdoors gave me the chance to quiet my mind and take stock of what I’m thankful for. I made the choice to continue to focus on those things. Life isn’t perfect, but I’ve found a level of peace that I didn’t think would exist for me every again. I hope WHO provides a path for others to find their way home.”

Bending Branches’ Ambassador and kayak angler, Tyler Thiede, is also heavily involved with WHO. Tyler is a volunteer EMT in Spring Valley, Wisconsin and owns a kayak/kayak fishing business called Small Craft Outfitters.

Tyler said:

“I met Eric, Jason, and team back in 2017 when they had a local event for veterans and first responders near me in Menomonie, Wisconsin. I volunteered my fleet of kayaks and Bending Branches paddles along with my guide services (I am a kayak fishing guide in Wisconsin) for the event. 

“Kayak fishing is a passion of mine and helps me with my mental health issues. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to talk to these heroes, hear their stories, hear how kayak fishing and the outdoors helps them, and see the smiles and sense of peace the sport brings them.  

“I am proud to help such a great organization and proud to be given the opportunity to represent Bending Branches, who supports amazing organizations like this.”

We love what WHO is doing for our country’s service men and women and their families, whether they serve overseas or here in the US.

kayaker at sunset

To learn more about Wisconsin Hero Outdoors or to get involved, visit their website or Facebook page.

(All photos courtesy of Wisconsin Hero Outdoors)

What paddle questions do you have? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 •

Wisconsin Hero Outdoors & Waukesha County Land Conservancy share their missions Sept 8th at 10:00am on News Talk Radio 1130 WISN ) on the Ellenecker Investment Group (LINK TO WEBSITE  ) Also available after Sept 8 on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify. Search Money Sense

2nd Annual Eau Galle Event

Wisconsin Hero Outdoors is excited to announce being selected for the 2019 Wisconsin Athletic Club Grant in partnership with Waukesha County Land Conservancy


Article Courtesy of:

Wounded Warriors on the Water slated June 8 on Pewaukee Lake

June 5, 2019  Dan Durbin

(Photo by Dan Durbin)

The 2019 Wounded Warriors on the Water (WWOTW) bass tournament and fundraiser will take place on June 8 on Pewaukee Lake and will feature $10,000 in cash and prizes, with all proceeds funding projects for Wisconsin Hero Outdoors (WHO).

Since the inception of the tournament five years ago, WABTA has raised more than $110,000 for nonprofit groups. This year, organizers are hoping to raise over $30,000 for the group that supports veterans, active military and first-responders.

There will be plenty of tournament anglers fishing the event, but a relatively new format in how prizes and cash are awarded makes it possible for even a novice angler to cash in.

Ryan Chuckel, who has played a key role in not just starting the event but in making it such a huge success, said that anyone who likes to fish should consider coming out.

“The event is designed to be fun for tournament anglers but also appealing to those with little or no tournament experience,” he said. “Rather than a typical five-fish weigh-in at the end of the day, we have four weigh-ins throughout the day. Each two-person team can weigh one bass per weigh-in period. At each weigh-in, we award cash prizes for the five biggest bass, up to $500 for the heaviest bass at each weigh-in. At the end of the day, the team that weighs the big bass of the day wins $2,500.”

Over the years, the funds raised from the tournament have gone to various non-profit groups – with all being related to helping out military veterans and the majority of the money being applied to projects right here in the state. This year, Wisconsin Hero Outdoors is on deck.

“Over the course of the six years of this tournament, we have worked with three charitable organizations,” Chuckel said. “It’s important to us that we always try to keep the money raised in-state.”

The CEO and co-founder of WHO said that their mission is to help connect veterans, first-responders and their families to outdoor activities in Wisconsin while supporting existing 501c3 organizations.

“In Ryan’s search for a partner organization that would be an active contributor to the operation and outreach of Wounded Warriors on the Water, he found Wisconsin Hero Outdoors online and through word of mouth in the veteran and fishing community,” said Falkner. “We operate the organization out of Pewaukee, where the tournament is held so the logistics made sense right away.”

The money raised at the WWOTW tournament will go to the purchase of adaptive fishing kayaks, one or two trailers, fishing, hiking, camping and archery equipment to supplement their expanding field operations in the Milwaukee, Madison and Lake Geneva areas.

The tournament starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. Registration ends at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 6. Teams can enter online or via mail. Details are available at

The fundraiser runs from 12-6 p.m. at Gina’s Sports Dock, with bucket raffles and silent auctions and great prizes, including Packer tickets and memorabilia, fishing gear and gift packages from local businesses.Categories: BassBlog ContentWisconsin – Dan DurbinTags: BassDan DurbinFishingPewaukee LakeWisconsin Hero OutdoorsWisconsin Outdoor News,Wounded Warriors on the Water


May 19, 2019

CEO Eric Falkner sits down with Wisconsin’s Outdoor Explorer to discuss the mission of Wisconsin Hero Outdoors and their future endeavors.

April 1, 2019

February 23, 2019

Smith: Wisconsin Hero Outdoors extends a hand to vets, first responders and their families

Milwaukee VA Media

February 20, 2019

Ice fishing warms the spirit with Wisconsin Hero Outdoors.

December 21, 2018

New group working with veterans, first responders

December 21, 2018  

Dan Durbin

Eric Falkner fishes from a kayak at Camp American Legion in Oneida County during a Wisconsin Hero Outdoors event over Labor Day weekend. (Photo by Dylan Nasi)

There are a lot of solid nonprofit groups that help out veterans, the physically challenged, and other worthy people and causes, but that didn’t stop Eric Falkner, of Pewaukee, from starting one that he felt was needed – Wisconsin Hero Outdoors (WHO).

“We started this group to promote the individual,” Falkner said. “Not just veterans, but also first responders. Because the effects of trauma among our heroes are universal. We thought there is no good reason to help one and not the other. From personal experience we wanted to broaden the opportunity for outdoor activities where many just focus on one,”

Falkner enlisted in the Marine Corps three days after 9/11 and completed boot camp at Pendleton, but suffered an injury that ended up leading to a medical discharge.

“I sustained a back injury while on active duty in the USMC and was medically discharged in April of 2002,” he said.  “After therapy and rehabilitation, I was cleared to be a firefighter at Wales Genesee Fire Department, where I completed the fire academy and EMT Basic Academy and was also the only member to work simultaneously on the Mukwonago dive team.”

However, more job-related injuries and a non-job-related injury forced Falkner to end his career as a firefighter in July 2015. Whether it was bad luck, or actually a blessing in disguise so he could start this group, a path was set for him.

“I was introduced to Jason Bartol while going through treatment at the Milwaukee VA, and after going kayak fishing with Jason and other veterans and first responders, I was hooked. The camaraderie and outdoor activities did nothing short of save my life.”

As time passed, Falkner and Bartol saw the need and opportunity for getting people involved in not just kayak fishing but a variety of outdoor activities for mental and physical well-being. They decided to take the next steps in formalizing their group.

“We partnered with Waukesha County Community Foundation and formed the Wisconsin Hero Outdoors Fund 501c3,” Falkner said. “Additionally, I applied for and was accepted to establish a legal advisory team with UW-Madison Law School’s Legal and Entrepreneur Clinic that will be helping us expand our organization’s infrastructure and processes at no cost, allowing for donations to be used directly for our mission.”

WHO does not really have a “membership” to sign up for. About the closest thing they have to a membership is the followers they have on Facebook.

“We don’t want people to feel like they need to be approved in order for them to get the experiences they need to help them through the tough times,” Falkner said. “Participants can come to one event or all the events at any regularity they choose and based on availability of space at an outing. Our organized outings encourage the development of personal relationships whereby smaller groups can organize on their own.”

Like most nonprofit groups, WHO has sponsors that help to keep the group operating.

“We prefer to think of them as partners as opposed to sponsors,” he said. “Some offer more regular support than others and we are open to collaboration providing it supports our mission of helping heroes and their families connect to the outdoors.”

Falkner said that although he’d love to expand, he has no plans to do so nationally at this time. He’s fine with sticking right here in Wisconsin but he’d still like to expand the reach of his group to include people who need their help.

“WHO would like to have a well-established working relationship with all VA medical facilities in Wisconsin as well as the ability to help provide access to outdoor activities throughout the state for veterans, first responders and their families,” he said.

For more information about the group, go to or email Falkner at Wisconsin – Dan DurbinTags: Dan DurbinWHOWisconsin Hero OutdoorsWisconsin Outdoor News

December 14, 2018

December 1, 2018

NBA Milwaukee Bucks
Jockey Everyday Heroes Award

Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

November: Jason Bartol

Jason Bartol served over 12 years in the United States Air Force, who also worked as a Franklin Police Officer and subsequently a Federal Agent where he was medically retired. That did not stop Jason’s service. He continues to serve and lead Veteran Service Organizations. Most notably, Jason co-founded Wisconsin Hero Outdoors with fellow veteran and first responder Eric Falkner. Wisconsin Hero Outdoors helps connect Veterans, First Responders and their families to the outdoors as a form of alternative therapy. Through years of grass roots growth, Jason and Wisconsin Hero Outdoors regularly takes veterans from VA Medical Facilities out kayak fishing, ice fishing and pontoon rides. Jason has also networked with several other organizations to help Wisconsin Heroes heal through a variety of hunting events. Jason is not only a Hero himself, but responsible for helping HUNDREDS of Heroes heal all while being a stay-at-home-dad while his wife continues to work full time as a Sergeant Milwaukee Police Officer.