When Jerry Van Bladel returned from the Vietnam War in 1970, he wasn't welcomed home with open arms.
He did three tours overseas with the Navy after leaving his hometown of Arlington Heights four years earlier. But he served in an unpopular war, and wasn't thanked or honored the way soldiers are today.
People he encountered didn't acknowledge his military service, and if the war ever crept into conversation, they would change the subject.
"They didn't want to hear it," Van Bladel said.
More than 40 years later, things have changed.
On a Sunday afternoon last month, Van Bladel, 67, stood among nearly 130 other veterans who were being honored by volunteers of the Bartlett-based nonprofit Take a Vet Fishing.
"In that moment, I realized that people appreciated us," Van Bladel said. "They appreciated what we did."
A brother and son of veterans, Take a Vet Fishing President Jay Garstecki said he has witnessed firsthand the struggle that soldiers face returning to society.
As his way of giving back, he wanted to use his fishing experience to help veterans cope with that transition.
"Imagine mornings spent on the lake, and imagine how peaceful and how serene and how calm it is," Garstecki said. "It sounds pretty elementary, but taking veterans out fishing and telling them they're home, they're safe, people appreciate what they did -- that goes a long way in their healing process."
Van Bladel and the veterans who surrounded him, including two of his younger brothers, Ken and Alan, had just spent four hours fishing on Lake Waubesa in Madison, Wisconsin.
Some of them also served in Vietnam, but there were also veterans who served in World War II, Korea, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Each had a different story, but they were all there, standing under a white-and-blue striped tent in front of their friends and family members, for the same reason. They were being thanked for their service.
"We were treated like royalty," said Vietnam War veteran Roy "Skeeter" Holmboe of Buffalo Grove, who attended his first Take a Vet Fishing trip this year.
After starting the program in 2011, Garstecki and his team took their first trip the following summer; 27 veterans went fishing on Lake Waubesa. The following year, nearly 80 veterans went on the same trip.
The trip expanded to 130 veterans this year, he said. By June 8, the day of the trip, all the spots were filled.
"It's gaining more and more traction. It's growing every year," said event coordinator Ken Kuhnle of St. Charles.
The veterans came from all across the Midwest, including many from the suburbs. They can be of any age, from any branch and of any rank, Kuhnle said.
The best part, Garstecki said, is that they don't have to pay a penny.
With funds raised from private donations and corporate sponsorships, Take a Vet Fishing pays for the entire trip, which costs between $18,000 and $20,000 total. The veterans don't have to worry about transportation costs, hotel rooms, meals or fishing equipment.
Then, at the closing ceremony, organizers thank them for their services and shower them with gifts.
"From beginning to end, it was a wonderful occasion," Holmboe said.
Garstecki said it's his volunteers who make the organization so successful.
During this year's trip, the veterans took out 76 boats. Each was led by a volunteer guide who assisted the veterans throughout the day.
The guides must have fishing experience and provide their own boats, Garstecki said. Some are veterans themselves, while others, like Pat Harrison of Park Ridge, have a personal connection to the military community.
Harrison, who has volunteered since the organization's inception, said he became a guide to honor his family members who served in the military.
"That's what keeps me involved," Harrison said. "I try to do as much as I can for the vets."
For the three Van Bladel brothers, the trip served as an opportunity to spend time together away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives, said Jerry Van Bladel, who lives in Cary.
But, he added, being able to share stories in a safe and comfortable environment was also rewarding.
"There's a lot of common interest there. It was really helpful to get together with other veterans who have shared some of the same experiences we have," Van Bladel said. "It didn't matter what conflict you were involved in. We had all served, and most of us were proud that we did."
Because of the organization's substantial growth, Garstecki said he wants to add one trip per year at a different location. On Sept. 28, 40 to 50 veterans are going fishing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Next year, he is hoping to add an Illinois location, he said.
The organization's services extend beyond the annual fishing trips, Garstecki said. He and the six other volunteer board members take individual veterans fishing almost every weekend throughout the summer.
One of the organization's goals, Garstecki said, is to help each soldier who seeks assistance. Take a Vet Fishing leaders have helped veterans pay for post-traumatic stress disorder medication with money made from donations and sponsors. They have also helped a veteran find a job and a home, he said.
"We can't make a difference on a holistic scale," Garstecki said, "but we can certainly make a difference on individual soldiers' lives."
For more information or to make a donation, visit takeavetfishing.com.