By RICH SCINTO
Record-Journal of Meriden
CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) — Retired Marine Sgt. Joe "Sarge" Kowalski, a lifelong Cheshire resident, is teaching veterans to fish, but it isn’t to feed them for life. It’s to help them recover from mental and physical injuries.
Kowalski is a co-host of the NBC Sports Outdoors show "The Ultimate Fishing Experience," which first aired on Jan. 5 and will finish its first season on March 29. The cast and crew of the show travel around the country to teach veterans about the therapeutic effects of fishing.
"There is something about 17½ feet of carpeted deck (of a boat) and fishing that is relaxing," he said.
Kowalski first started fishing when he was about 5 years old. He discovered that fishing helped him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 13-year veteran started the Maj. Steven Roy Andrews Fishing Outreach Program in 2008. The program is named after Kowalski’s lifelong friend, fellow veteran and fishing partner. Andrews served in the Air Force and was due to retire in 2002, but died of a heart attack at 40 in 2000.
The outreach program teaches veterans and children how to fish. Kowalski gives the participants what he calls "Bass 101," which teaches them the basics of fishing. He also sets the participants up with fishing gear so they can continue fishing.
"The Ultimate Fishing Experience" is a natural continuation of Kowalski’s mission.
The show’s founder, executive producer and host, Keith Alan, took some inspiration from Kowalski’s program and other similar programs that help veterans through fishing. Alan started creating the show with Emmy Award winning director/producer Jason Wald. The show started on its way to production in February 2011, when Alan invited Kowalski to a meeting in Orlando, Fla., with fishing industry and television network executives.
Kowalski told the people at the meeting that he needed their time and money in order to help veterans and spread awareness about veterans with disabilities.
Kowalski brings several elements to the show; one of the most important is his ability to relate to troubles veterans face. He is also a regular guy who smokes a cigar and drinks Scotch while fishing, Alan said.
"Sarge is an endearing, lovable guy," Alan said. "He is the same in person as he is on camera."