Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation

Bayfield County Cast and Blast recognizes veterans’ service

Journal Sentinel
Paul A. Smith

The wind gusted from the north at 25 mph, its force augmented by sheets of cold rain. The waters of Bayfield County were whipped with whitecaps.

Standing on a boat in the middle of it all, there were moments when floating nearly transitioned to wading.

“Amphibious expedition,” said Eric Shaffer, a U.S. Marine first sergeant from Beaufort, S.C. “We can do that.”

Who better to execute a mission in rough weather than a member of the U.S. military?

Shaffer, 40, reared back and cast a big crankbait into the teeth of the wind. His quest: catch the first musky of his life.

On a nearby lake, Larry Rozell, 67, a retired U.S. Navy captain from Wheeler, Wis., and Anthony Gower, 43, a Marine staff sergeant from Sardis, Ohio, fished for trophy bass and northern pike.

The three men have faced much tougher conditions. Each has been awarded a Purple Heart for combat injuries.

They converged in October in northern Wisconsin for a program designed to recognize their service and help them on their lifelong journey of healing. Over five days, the men would fish, hunt, share stories and make new memories as guests in a community of appreciative Wisconsinites.

The event is the 2nd annual Bayfield County Cast and Blast, organized by Chris and Brenda Diesing of Brookfield.

It’s one of dozens of programs offered through the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation Inc., a national nonprofit formed in 2007 by John McDaniel of Phillips.

The organization strives to serve Purple Heart recipients by “providing world-class outdoor sporting activities as a means to honor their sacrifice, encourage independence and connections with communities, and promote healing and wellness through camaraderie and a shared passion for the outdoors.”

The Bayfield County Cast and Blast sprang from a conversation in the spring of 2013.

Chris Diesing’s father, uncles and grandfathers served in U.S. armed forces. But he was denied entry due to asthma.

“That stuck with me, like I let my father down,” said Diesing, 45, who works as a salesman for an interior contractor.

In 2013, Diesing met Josh Krueger, a former Marine who lives in Hubertus. The two talked about military service, including Diesing’s unfulfilled desire. Krueger mentioned a relatively new group: WWIA.

A plan began to take shape in Diesing’s head. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if he could help “serve those who served?”

Bayfield County, where Diesing had gone since his youth to enjoy the outdoors, could be a perfect site for a WWIA event. Not only did the area have world-class fishing and hunting, but there was a potentially supportive network of lodges, restaurants and guides.

From the time he floated the idea in 2013, the people of Bayfield County embraced the idea, Diesing said. Most of the activities are held in and around the tiny town of Delta, pop. 273.

In the realm of military appreciation events, WWIA strives for all-expenses paid “dream trips.” Dairyland Fence, a local company, provided a $3,000 contribution to WWIA, Diesing said.

Terry and Patty Pajtash, owners of Scenic Drive Resort, donated lodging for the military guests for the entire event as well as two meals. Daily breakfasts were provided free by Todd Bucher and his staff at Delta Diner. A Friday night fish fry was donated by Flying Eagle Resort.

The event included three full days of hunting and fishing. On the agenda for 2014: fishing for musky, walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass and hunting for ducks, white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse.

Fishing guides Dave Brown of Delta and Jeff Evans of Iron River provided outings on area lakes and rivers. Rick Whiting of Bayside led a grouse hunt on private land in the area and Dave “Govy” Simonson of Delta took the men on a duck hunt. Diesing and Terry Pajtash accompanied the men on bowhunts for deer.

“It’s a privilege to host these men,” Patty Pajtash said. “And because we get to spend several days with them, it just makes us want to do more.”

An indication of the depth of support in the local community: Two churches donated their weekly tithings to the program. The total: $400.01.

Roszell’s military service spanned from Vietnam in the 1960s to Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in the 1990s. He received two Purple Hearts as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam in 1967-’68. Many things changed over that time, Roszell said, including some for the better. After being wounded in Vietnam, Roszell was sent home for convalescence. His father told him “whatever you do, don’t wear your uniform.” When he returned from Operation Desert Storm, Roszell said he and fellow military personnel were treated to a parade.

“There’s a huge difference among the general support for our service,” Roszell said. “We’re mostly seen as the good guys now.”

But dealing with other facets of life back in the states — injuries, trauma, stress, jobs — is just as challenging as ever.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a new wave of wounded. From Sept. 11, 2001, through April 1, 2014, American military forces sustained 51,832 wounded in action, according to a Department of Defense report.

The WWIA programs include a focus on treating depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to help reduce suicide.

Roszell suffers from nightmares several times a week. “I tell you what, though, this event is making me feel like a king,” Roszell said.

Roszell and Gower caught several fish of a lifetime in one day of fishing with Evans, including a 40-inch northern reeled in by Gower.

And Shaffer, who has been around the world on five combat tours with the Marines, set three personal records on his trip. It was the farthest north he’d ever been. And fishing with guide Brown, he caught the first (35 inches) and biggest (41 inches) muskies of his life.

“Good day,” Shaffer said, shrugging off the rain. “Real good people, too.”

It’s been said “gratitude is an attitude.” With Veteran’s Day approaching, it was heartening to see firsthand how the attitude can inspire action and giving.