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Kevin, an ex-Air Force medic in a wheelchair with a condition “similar to Parkinson’s without the shaking,” smiles as he strokes the head of his service dog, Sage. Kevin’s doctors say his disease is inherited (“passed down from my father, a Vietnam vet exposed to Agent Orange”). Another fishing rod bows over. The hook is set. The crew lifts a smiling Kevin into the fighting chair where he cranks another salmon into the net.
To hear Guenthardt talk, making sure every “team” catches a boatload of Lake Michigan salmon sounds like the easy part of the event. Instead, he’d rather talk about the dozens of charter boat captains who have motored from as far as Pentwater, 35 miles south, and Charlevoix, 100 miles north, to donate their time. He talks about the legion of unpaid volunteers and the thousands of dollars in grants and private donations that make it possible for veterans from 145 different cities across the state to participate, all expenses paid.
Tight Lines for Troops started less than five years ago when Guenthardt, a Vietnam-era vet and owner of Renegade Charters, mentioned the idea to a couple of his captain buddies. Wouldn’t it be nice to give a veteran a free day of charter fishing?
“But the idea was actually on my mind a long time,” he says. “I was in the Army in the late 1960s and ready to ship over to Vietnam just as soon as my wife delivered our first child. Then the Tet Offensive happened in 1968, and my unit took so many casualties I didn’t have to go because there wasn’t a unit to go to anymore.”
Ted, a Vietnam-era Marine remembers his inspiration for joining in 1967: “American soldiers created the American dream for me. My family immigrated to Michigan from Holland in 1959. My father always talked about the fearless American soldiers fighting the Germans in World War II. One day a platoon of soldiers knocked on the door, asking if they could borrow a frying pan … years later, after the war, one of the soldiers returned with the pan to say thanks.”
In 2009, and with the support of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Warrior Society (Guenthardt is a member), American Legion and VFW, United Veterans Council and the Manistee Chamber of Commerce, Tight Lines for Troops established itself as a nonprofit. Captain Bob’s fleet of volunteer fishing boats has grown every year since, as has the list of sponsors, which now numbers over 500 companies. Tight Lines donates all funds to three organizations: the Michigan Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Manistee County Veterans Endowment Fund, and the Brain Injury Association of Michigan.
“Veterans fill out an online application for entry and, once accepted, the organization pays for their meals, lodging, entry fee and any fuel costs to get here,” Guenthardt says. “In 2013, we’re expecting 60 boats and over 300 vets representing all branches of service, from National Guard soldiers to ex-POWs, Purple Heart recipients and disabled vets, to special ‘Gold Star’ families that have recently lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan.”